Elizabeth Earl

Halibut commission to set harvest limits with overall biomass increasing

Halibut fishermen across the Pacific coast will be watching the International Pacific Halibut Commission in a few weeks to see what quotas and limits look like this year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission will meet online starting on Jan. 24. The commission, made up of representatives from the U.S. and Canada, sets the annual catch limits for halibut from the U.S. West Coast through Canada out to the Bering Sea. This year, surveys show that the overall biomass increased by 4 percent, a marked turn from the declines seen in recent years. However, survey data showed mixed results for the areas in Alaska, ranging from an 11 percent decline in Southeast Alaska to a 57 percent increase in southwestern Alaska. Southcentral Alaska, the most populous region, saw a 4 percent decline; there was a 6 percent decline in the eastern Aleutians; a 7 percent increase in the western Aleutians; and a 9 percent decline in the central and northern Bering Sea. Overall, the coastwide stock saw a 4 percent increase, with the declines in Alaska balanced out by an 11 percent increase in Canadian waters, according to the stock assessment provided to the IPHC ahead of the meeting. “The current trend in population distribution appears to be shifting back toward Biological Region 3 after more than a decade of decline,” the stock assessment states. The stock assessments have shown consistent decline coastwide for the last four years, with declining catch limits for the commercial and recreational sectors. At the 2021 meeting, the IPHC increased catch limits about 6.5 percent and extended the season by a month, running from March through December. Long-term, the stock declined from the late 1990s to around 2012, driven largely by “a result of decreasing size-at-age,” according to the assessment. The age classes from 2006-2013 were mostly smaller than those from the previous decade, but the 2012 age class appears to be large like the historical ones. In addition to setting the catch limits, the commission has several proposals related to federal halibut management to consider, such as allowing fishermen to use the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s digital logbook tool to record sport halibut harvest and setting the slot limits and weekly closures in the charter fisheries in Southeast and Southcentral. In Southeast, the proposal recommends a reverse slot limit. If that doesn’t keep the fishery within its allocation, then the charter fishery would be closed on Mondays starting September 19, gradually working its way earlier in the season depending on the charter allocation, with the earliest date being May 19. If the allocation still wouldn’t be reached after closing all Mondays, the annual limit would decrease to four per year, then three. In Southcentral, the recommendations include a two-fish limit per day, with one of any size and the other 28 inches or smaller for charter anglers. Wednesdays would be closed to halibut retention all year and charter vessels limited to one trip per day, and one trip per charter halibut permit per day. There would be no annual limit on retained Pacific halibut for charter anglers, though. The moving piece depending on allocation is Tuesday closures. Like Southeast, depending on the size of the allocation, the number of closed Tuesdays ranges from zero to starting on Feb. 1 and running all season. The recommendations for Southeast and Southcentral came from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, after it received input from Fish and Game and its Charter Halibut Management Committee. Members on that committee from Southeast are concerned about the potential for allocation cuts in Southeast this year. Some of that has to do with what Canada is willing to do. “One member (from Southeast) noted that without any adjustments the IPHC International agreement to assign a fixed allocation percentage in Area 2B could potentially impact the 2C reverse slot limit by 3 critical inches,” a North Pacific Council memo about the proposal to the IPHC states. Beyond just setting catch limits and evaluating proposals, the commission also considers scientific and economic research. One of the ongoing projects includes a socioeconomic study on the impact of halibut to the regional economies of Canada and the U.S. The study includes industries ranging from directed halibut fishing to processing, manufacturing, retail and charter, among others, and seeks to quantify the benefit in fisheries “from hook to plate,” according to an update on the project provided to the commission. The most recent update estimates that commercial halibut fishing resulted in about $195.9 million in household earnings in 2019. The model does include data from 2020, but because of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers aren’t considered typical of past years. “Detailed results are provided for 2019 as this represents a more typical year for the economy. The estimates for 2020 suggest that Pacific halibut commercial sectors’ contribution to households decreased by 25 percent, and output related to Pacific halibut commercial fishing decreased by 27 percent,” according to the report. Of the $23.7 million earned in direct halibut fishing in Alaska in 2019, about 70 percent of that remained in the state, according to the report, with most of that in Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka. One of the goals of the socioeconomic work is to highlight the cross-boundary nature of the halibut fisheries as well as the impact away from just direct harvest. It’s also intended to help policymakers understand the vulnerability of communities that are particularly reliant on halibut to stock fluctuations. “A good understanding of the localized effects is pivotal to policymakers who are often concerned about community impacts, particularly in terms of impact on employment opportunities and households’ welfare,” the report states. “Fisheries policies have a long history of disproportionally hurting smaller communities, often because potential adverse effects were not sufficiently assessed.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fish postpones Southeast meeting, new time TBD

Update: The Board of Fisheries announced Jan. 11 the Southeast finfish and shellfish meeting will be held March 10-22 in Anchorage to balance the challenges of logistics, other board meetings, the timing of fisheries and the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Alaska, according to a statement from Department of Fish and Game officials. Original story: The Alaska Board of Fisheries kicked off the new year by postponing its Southeast regulatory meeting. The meeting was supposed to run from Jan. 4–15 in Ketchikan. It would have been the first in-person Board of Fisheries meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic started forcing cancellations in March 2020. A Jan. 1 announcement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the postponement of the Southeast meeting was out of “abundance of caution due to the record-breaking rise of COVID-19 cases in the United States, and a concerning sharp rise in Southeast Alaska.” Like most regions of the United States, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Southeast Alaska. Several Fish and Game staff members who were supposed to participate in the meeting recently tested positive for COVID-19 as well, according to the announcement. “Conducting this intensely public 12-day meeting with potential attendance of over 200 people from around the state has the potential to cause a significant case spike in Ketchikan and lead to overrunning its hospital capacity already expected to strain from local infections from the holiday season,” the announcement states. ADFG did not announce a new date or location, but the Board of Fisheries intends to finish its regulatory cycle within this year, according to the Jan. 1 statement. Herring Herring management is at the top of the list of concerns for the Southeast Alaska meeting, with a raft of proposals dividing users primarily between the subsistence and commercial groups. The largest commercial herring fishery in Southeast is in Sitka Sound, though there are smaller fisheries spread across the region. They’re harvested in a number of different ways for several purposes, including as sac-roe and for commercial bait or food, and the spawn is harvested on kelp for both commercial purposes and subsistence. The sac-roe fishery and spawn-on-kelp fisheries all typically take place in the spring, when herring are spawning in Southeast, while the bait and food fishery typically takes place in the fall and winter. A set of 15 proposals before the board at this meeting offer changes to the harvest rate strategy, time and area, quota shares, gear and management plans. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska offered several of the proposals to change the strategy for the Sitka Sound fishery, primarily to preserve the stock for subsistence use. All three proposals received dozens of public comments in support from commercial fishermen, subsistence users and tribal members, among others. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska sued ADFG officials in 2018 over the state’s herring management strategies, which Tribe officials contend favor commercial interests. The case is now before the Alaska Supreme Court. The recent biomass in Sitka Sound has been increasing, which means the harvest rate has been near that 20 percent recently, but the amount of remaining harvestable surplus for subsistence users and ecosystem use is based on old data and is not enough, according to the Sitka Tribe. The first proposes to limit commercial harvest of the Sitka Sound herring stock to less than 20 percent of the total spawning biomass, and the other two seek to limit the harvest of the older fish, which are larger. In their rationale, Sitka Tribe of Alaska officials wrote that the demands of the commercial fishery mean larger fish are the ones being most heavily targeted. “Currently, many herring captured by the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery are young and small and do not meet market demands,” the Tribe’s proposal states. “Consequently, the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery consistently targets and harvests the oldest, largest, most fecund females in the population. These are the very fish we should protect to ensure the long-term health of the population.” A dozen other proposals seek to change the regulations of the herring fisheries as well. Those from the Sitka Herring Conservation Alliance, a fishing industry group, ask for reduced closed areas to commercial fishing in Sitka Sound and a new requirement for a subsistence fishing permit to harvest herring roe on branches in Sitka Sound. Several individuals are asking for an increase in the possession limit for subsistence spawn-on-kelp and the establishment of equal-share quotas for the Sitka sac roe purse seine fishery. Hatcheries Herring aren’t the only topic of contention, though. Several proposals targeting the operation of salmon hatcheries in Southeast would set up a list of requirements for hatchery operations, including limiting straying rates — hatchery salmon that return to nearby streams and mix with wild stocks — and setting controls on production if straying rates exceed a certain amount. The author of the proposal, Pioneer Alaskan Fisheries, Inc., notes concern about the mixing of hatchery salmon stocks with wild stocks out of Silver Bay near Sitka. “This remaining pristine quadrant of (Southeast Alaska) is getting hammered by stray hatchery fish,” the Pioneer Alaskan’s proposal states. The hatchery proposals have both received opposition from commercial fishing interests and hatchery operators, who say the actions could severely limit the ability of hatcheries to operate in Southeast and to support commercial fisheries. King salmon A pair of proposals dealing with the region’s currently scarce king salmon garnered significant attention in comments prior to the meeting. The first, submitted by ADFG, would have the commissioner set limits in the king salmon sport fishery in Southeast based on harvest rate in the winter king troll commercial fishery. The changes would come with the continued objective of providing 20 percent of the annual king harvest set by the Pacific Salmon Commission for the sport fishery, while also keeping the overall harvest within the Pacific Salmon Treaty allocations. Fish and Game notes in the proposal that without modification of the current plan, the sport fishery will exceed its allocation more often and by larger amounts. A proposal by the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization would set the king salmon allocation between commercial trolling and sport fishing to 80-20, aiming for a 20 percent sport harvest allocation over time. The organization says this plan, which could take a variety of forms in bag and possession limits for residents and nonresidents, would help stabilize king salmon fishing opportunity that has been sharply curtailed in recent years. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Pacific council shifts strategy to limit Bering Sea trawl bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved this week to tie Pacific halibut bycatch limits for Bering Sea groundfish trawlers to abundance, which is expected to lead to immediate cuts to the trawlers. The council’s Dec. 13 action changes the limits on how many halibut can be taken as bycatch by the Amendment 80 fleet, which is a group of catcher-processor vessels that are allocated a portion of Bering Sea groundfish harvest. Currently, the fleet is bound to a hard limit on how many halibut they can take as bycatch, known as the prohibited species catch, or PSC limit. This action, known as halibut abundance-based management, or ABM, has been in the works for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for about six years. The council’s recommendation is for the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt a four-tiered PSC limit structure based on the abundance indices from the most recent halibut setline survey data, cross-referencing both data from the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Eastern Bering Sea shelf trawl survey. Connecting the two creates an eight-option chart. The only way the PSC limit would remain at its current level is if both surveys returned as “high abundance;” in every other situation, the PSC limit drops, from 10% to 35%, in the worst case for the trawlers. The council’s adopted motion is a mix of two alternatives presented in the draft environmental impact statement crafted in-part to create a compromise between the council’s intention to tie the bycatch cap to halibut abundance while reducing the projected impact on the trawl fleet in the case of low abundance. Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a member of the council, made the motion and said it was intended to balance the various standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The Amendment 80 fleet has raised a variety of concerns about this action, including that there doesn’t seem to be a positive correlation between bycatch and halibut abundance. Baker said they took this into account before crafting the motion. “While I agree these are valid concerns, the primary objective of this action is to link halibut PSC limits to the abundance of halibut, to recognize that halibut is a fully allocated species,” she said. The Amendment 80 fleet has strongly protested the action, saying vessel owners have already taken steps to reduce their halibut bycatch as much as they practically can and that any further reductions will lead to serious negative impacts on the fleet. TJ Durnan, the captain of the F/V Alaska Spirit, told the council during public testimony that the Amendment 80 fleet has taken on actions like utilizing halibut excluder nets and deck sorting for years and regularly communicates about where halibut are on the grounds. He said his vessel employs about 100 people year-round and asked the council to consider the economic impacts on them. “(The Amendment 80 crewmen) are no different or more or less important than anyone else who works in the fishery,” he said. The main support for the motion came from subsistence halibut harvesters in the Bering Sea region, fishermen in the directed Bering Sea halibut fishery and halibut fishermen from other sectors across Alaska. The directed halibut fishermen in the Bering Sea have said they want to see more of the burden of conservation passed to the trawl fleet instead of bearing all the reductions themselves, and the subsistence fishermen are concerned both about the sustainability of the stock and access to halibut in the future. Meanwhile, a variety of other fishermen, including charter fishermen and commercial fishermen from other regions, testified in favor of the action out of overall concern for Pacific halibut as a coast-wide stock. But many, like Coastal Villages Region Fund, had nuanced concerns. Coastal Villages is a community development quota group, or CDQ group, and distributes community assistance to its various communities in Western Alaska. Paul Wilkins, the quota manager for CVRF, said the group could not support enacting ABM because the benefit to the communities from the assistance programs, which are funded by proceeds from the harvesting quota in the groundfish fisheries, is too important. The council voted 8-3 to pass Baker’s motion, but several members said they have concerns about the long-term impact on the Amendment 80 fleet as well. Council chairman Simon Kineen was on the council in 2015 when it took action to limit halibut bycatch and started discussing ABM. He said he supported Baker’s motion, but that the council in the future may find that it went too far in impacting the Amendment 80 fleet. “I’m not convinced the results will match the expectations as we go ahead here,” he said. Council member Andy Mezirow said he was frustrated that so many members of the public were fixated on passing a single option and were getting their information from stakeholders, who have vested interests, rather than from the experts. He noted that the council appreciated what the Amendment 80 fleet was doing to voluntarily reduce its halibut bycatch, but that this action would help spread out the burden of conservation, comparing it to the way the charter fleet has had to give up chunks of its season to conserve the stock. Mezirow owns a fishing charter business in Southcentral and also fishes halibut commercially. “The Amendment 80 fleet may in fact have to face the fact of doing more with less, but we are moving one step closer to having all fishermen share in this burden,” he said. The draft EIS presented to the council states that the actions won’t have a significant impact on the spawning biomass of halibut in the Bering Sea. That’s in part because the stock is managed by the IPHC, which sets limits to protect the spawning stock of halibut. Council member Nicole Kimball noted this, and said she had heard “loud and clear” from the IPHC that the current low abundance trends are likely to continue for some time. Reached shortly after the Dec. 13 vote, Groundfish Forum Executive Director Chris Woodley said the group was “shocked” at the council’s action. In a statement, the Groundfish Forum — a trade group representing the Amendment 80 fleet — said the council “ignored science” and took actions that would result in a net negative economic benefit to the nation. The draft EIS itself estimates that at least one flatfish harvesting company per year will likely be unable to meet the new cap. Woodley said the Groundfish Forum takes that seriously, and that for some companies, this could mean multiple years where they are shut down early. Woodley said the group estimates that the fishery will see a 25% reduction in its PSC limit the first season ABM goes into place, which would translate to about an $86 million cut to the sector. The action won’t go into place for at least a year, as NMFS still has to go through its federal rule-making process to implement it. In the meantime, Woodley said the Groundfish Forum is “exploring all options due to the unprecedented nature of this decision.” Because the action is so recent, he said the group is not yet sure what that will look like. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

2021 in Review: Top Stories

1. Lawmakers spin their wheels on fiscal solutions through four special sessions The year started with sincere hope among many Alaska lawmakers that it would finally be the time for a grand fiscal compromise that would end years of fighting over Permanent Fund dividend checks and a decade-long run of budget deficits. However, as Gov. Mike Dunleavy tried, and tried again, and again, and again and again — over the regular legislative session and four special ones — it became increasingly clear the factions that have kept the state mired in the same budget debates for years would push the issue into the next year once more. The initial optimism for a long-term fiscal solution stemmed from the fact that it looked like the state would be out of savings, or very close to it, by year’s end, giving entrenched lawmakers no choice but to compromise. Projections at the beginning of the calendar year from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division said the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR, Alaska’s lone active savings account at the time, would be down to less than $600 million when the 2021 state fiscal year ended June 30. With Department of Revenue and budget officials in the administration stressing the need to maintain a balance of at least $500 million, but ideally more, in the CBR for managing the state’s day-to-day cash flow needs and anemic near-term revenue projections, there appeared to be no way out but to reach some sort of major budget-cut-tax-and-spend agreement. It was mostly downhill from there. Dunleavy moderated his position from demanding “full” PFDs based on the traditional formula still in law to a 50-50 split of the Permanent Fund’s spendable earnings between government and dividends each year at the end of the regular session in mid-May. He announced his compromise plan at a press conference in the Capitol while backed by a large group of legislators, many of whom previously opposed much of the governor’s fiscal agenda, saying it was an important first step towards a solution. Despite that, Dunleavy’s insistence on enshrining the PFD in the Alaska Constitution remained a hard line many legislators were not willing to cross. They say putting the PFD on par with funding for education, public safety and other core services the state is responsible for could lead to serious problems in times of low revenue. Another group of legislators was willing to work with Dunleavy on the constitutional amendment, so long as the administration provided a way to fill the $1 billion to $1.5 billion annual deficits the governor’s plan was projected to create. New taxes or a less than 50-50 PFD again proved to be things Dunleavy could not commit to; his past proposal for major cuts to balance the budget started a recall effort and turned part of his own party against him. This year, administration officials testified in front of legislators numerous times that the governor would be open to carefully crafted new taxes to fill part of the deficit, but the idea was largely dismissed by Dunleavy in public statements. The stalemate over the PFD — this year’s and long-term — again pushed Alaska towards a government shutdown; this time within 2 days, the closest ever. After he signed the budget, Dunleavy persisted with two more special sessions in August and October, though by then it was clear little was likely to be achieved. Consistently rising oil prices throughout most of the year provided for increasingly optimistic revenue and budget forecasts, which most legislators eventually used as a way to avoid a solution this year and the administration used as evidence Alaska doesn’t need new taxes to pay bigger dividends. In the end, eligible Alaskans received a PFD of $1,114, slightly larger than 2020. — Elwood Brehmer 2. $10B+ in North Slope work on hold There was renewed optimism among those with a vested interest in Alaska’s oil industry to start 2021. Drilling was resuming after the early pandemic shutdown and two major projects totaling more than $10 billion in North Slope investments were on the horizon, but that began to change quickly. The year is going to end with both the Willow and Pikka oil projects on hold indefinitely for separate reasons. ConocoPhillips appeared to score a small court victory Feb. 1 when U.S. District Court Sharon Gleason denied an injunction attempting to stop ruled early gravel work the company planned to do last winter for its $8 billion Willow project. Gleason concluded the activity was unlikely to harm polar bears and other wildlife in the National Petroleum Petroleum Reserve-Alaska until the broader merits of two suits challenging federal approvals for the project were determined. The company could move ahead, but only briefly. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gleason’s decision less than two weeks later on an expedited appeal. The three-judge 9th Circuit order halted work on Willow for the winter and sent the case back for Gleason to reconsider. Through early summer, ConocoPhillips attorneys and representatives expressed hope the issues over the temporary injunction could be resolved, allowing work to resume this winter. That was until Gleason invalidated significant portions of the Interior Department’s environmental analysis of Willow. The company did not appeal the ruling by an October deadline. ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders said they remain committed to the project and the best path forward is to remedy the issues identified by Gleason — likely a multi-year endeavor — rather than continue a potentially longer court fight. Meanwhile, Oil Search Alaska leaders said they were hopeful the company would sanction the first, $3 billion phase of its Pikka oil development between the large Alpine and Kuparuk North Slope fields until this fall when documents filed with the state indicated a likely takeover of the company would delay the decision until at least next year. Oil Search shareholders approved the company’s purchase by Australian-based producer Santos Ltd. in early December. Both projects were once expected to start production by late 2025 after several years of construction. Alaska-based leaders of Papua New Guinea-based Oil Search also acknowledged the mid-sized explorer and producer was having difficulty financing the project as more and more investment banks turn away from Arctic oil and gas projects. — Elwood Brehmer 3. Bristol Bay breaks sockeye run record Sockeye flooded into Bristol Bay this year, topping the all-time run record with 66.1 million sockeye attempting to return to the region’s large river systems. It blew away the preseason forecast and topped the previous record of 62.9 million, which was set in 2018. It’s only the third time the total inshore run has topped 60 million in the bay’s history. It wasn’t the only record set, either — the Nushagak district also saw its two largest single-day harvests ever, with more than 1.8 million sockeye harvested in a single day in July. Prices were also somewhat higher than last year, and competitive — Peter Pan Seafoods announced a pre-season price of $1.10 per pound and raised it to $1.25 per pound in July, competing with OBI, which also announced a $1.25 per pound base price with a 15-cent postseason adjustment. However, it wasn’t all rosy news about the run. Overall fish size was down by about a pound. Managers noted that the fish were younger on average, with three-year-olds as the dominant age class. Managers aren’t sure why yet. The overall ex-vessel value reached about $247.7 million before post-season adjustments, which is the fourth largest in the bay’s history. It’s one of the only regions in Alaska that did well for salmon value this year — others struggled to even get fishing periods, if they fished at all. Next year’s run is predicted to break even this year’s record, with a forecast of 71.9 million sockeye for the various systems, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Some of that has to do with the large sizes of the sibling class related to next year’s run, with exceptional returns projected for all major Bristol Bay systems. — Elizabeth Earl 4. Delegation salvages Southeast cruise season Canada dealt another blow — albeit unintended — to Alaska’s tourism industry in early February when leaders of the Canadian Transportation Ministry announced the country’s ports would again be closed to foreign passenger vessel traffic in 2021. The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said the closure came as a complete shock and were critical of Canadian officials for not notifying them ahead of time. The news effectively killed the start of the 2021 Alaska cruise season, as the 19th century-era Passenger Vessel Services Act requires all foreign-flagged and built passenger ships to stop in a foreign port on their way between domestic destinations. Cruise ships traveling to Alaska from the West Coast typically used Vancouver as their PVSA compliance stop. For their part, the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation used their outsized collective influence to push an Alaska-specific PVSA exemption bill through Congress and to President Joe Biden’s desk before Memorial Day. That allowed large cruise companies to resume service to the state by late July, providing some additional business for Southeast tourism businesses reeling from no large ships in 2020. The PVSA exemption coincided with action from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to approve COVID-19 mitigation plans for cruise vessels and port towns. Southeast tourism industry leaders estimate more than 110,000 cruise passengers visited the region last year, which is about 10 percent of pre-pandemic passenger volumes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation in September to permanently exempt Alaskas from the PVSA, as the prior bill was only effective for this year. — Elwood Brehmer 5. Crab stock crashes lead to deep cuts, closures in Bering Sea It was tough for crab in Western Alaska this year. Surveys revealed a terrible surprise for crab fishermen: a roughly 90% drop in snow crab stocks in the Bering Sea, leading to drastically reduced crab catch limits. The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association estimates it to result in about a $200 million loss for the fishery. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what happened to the crab. If they’re alive, they’ve moved far away from the survey area and were missed entirely; if they’re dead, there could be a variety of causes. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is moving to start a process to study how to minimize bottom contact for pelagic trawl gear in crab protection areas, in part to see if that will help conserve crab stocks. Snow crab aren’t the only stock in trouble, though they’re the most surprising. In recent years, managers were actually able to increase the total catch limit for snow crab because the recruitment looked promising, but that seems to have reversed this year. One decline that wasn’t really a surprise was the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which will be closed completely due to low stock abundance this year. This will be the first closure for the fishery since 1995, but the stock has been declining for some years with gradually smaller catch limits. However, the closure is still a serious impact for the affected harvesters and communities that depend on Bristol Bay red king crab for a living. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council also moved to study if extending the closure area for the stock in Bristol Bay could help, in part because the crab in the bay may be moving northward from their older, traditional areas. — Elizabeth Earl

Fishermen sue feds again to stop Cook Inlet salmon closure

A National Marine Fisheries Service rule is set to effectively close the Upper Cook Inlet commercial drift fishery when the calendar turns to 2022, but two lawsuits have been filed to keep it open. In November, two separate complaints were filed in the U.S. District Court of Alaska against the National Marine Fisheries Service related to the closure of the federal waters in Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. The rule, which was finalized in early November, is set to take effect Jan. 1, and would block the drift gillnet fleet from a major portion of their historical fishing area. Members of the fleet have been protesting the move before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and in court since the decision last December. The first complaint, filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of three fishermen—Wes Humbyrd, Robert Wolfe and Dan Anderson—argues that the actions of the council aren’t valid because of the standing of the council members. Michael Poon, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the case is similar to another one that the organization handled for California-based fishermen against the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Council members can make management decisions on federal fisheries by directing the National Marine Fisheries Service to take action. The fishermen’s complaint argues that this makes them officers of the United States, and therefore falling under the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause says they should be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, as are other federal officials. That’s not the process with the council members, some of whom hold their seats because of their office, and some of whom are state representatives chosen by governors. On top of that, the council members “enjoy extraordinarily strong protections against removal” the complaint states. “These arguments show the sort of accountability deficit of these council structures,” Poon said. “It’s the broader problem that affects the councils nationwide.” He said the complaint is requesting a complete vacation of Amendment 14, which was the motion the council passed roughly a year ago that included the closing the federal waters of Cook Inlet to commercial salmon fishing. As far as the broader implications of the case, he said they’re not expect something as broad as a complete invalidation of council decisions based on the ruling, but that it may call into question the council’s ability to act in a mandatory fashion. “What may be enacted is the ability of a council to be recommending bodies,” he said. Given their past experience, Poon said he thought there was a “strong chance of success on these arguments.” The other case, filed by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, asks for a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief and petition for review. UCIDA and CIFF started the legal tussle over the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan in 2012, winning a judgment against the council’s prior management actions in 2016 and forcing the council to reconsider how it delegated management of salmon fisheries in federal waters to the state. This lawsuit is a new complaint, though, rather than branching off the previous complaint the two groups filed in 2012. That complaint claims the council did not comply with the previous court ruling on Amendment 12—the original amendment the council passed in 2012 that removed Cook Inlet from the salmon fishery management plan prompting the lawsuit—that required the council to formulate a plan for the fishery that complied with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. “(The council and NFMS) try to achieve the same result (as Amendment 12) under a different guise,” the complaint states. “Amendment 14 closes the fishery in federal waters and relinquishes complete management control for the Cook Inlet salmon fishery to the State of Alaska. But this is just a different way to shirk the same duty.” The complaint also alleges that the council’s actions violate the MSA, Administrative Procedures Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, UCIDA and CIFF want the court to declare that Amendment 14 doesn’t comply with the earlier ruling, that the defendants acted in bad faith, and to vacate Amendment 14. UCIDA, which is a trade organization representing the drift gillnet fleet of Upper Cook Inlet, has long held that the 2016 ruling requires the council to develop a management plan that would manage the Cook Inlet salmon fishery throughout its range, which includes into freshwater. Part of this contention is that UCIDA has said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is sidelining the commercial fisheries. Fish and Game officials deny this allegation and argue Inlet salmon management is science-based and held that any action by the council that would reach into freshwaters would violate the state’s sovereignty and right to manage its own fishery resources. At the December 2020 meeting in which the council adopted Amendment 14, a representative from Fish and Game informed the council that the state would not accept delegated management of the inlet, which threw a wrench into the discussions about how to adopt a new plan. In a Dec. 6 statement, UCIDA says it asked the court to expedite its complaint with a new judge. Despite that, the group says it doesn’t expect oral arguments in the case until mid-April. “Under the rules for litigation for the MSA, the court must expedite to the fullest extent possible,” UCIDA’s board of directors wrote in the statement. “Even with that, the courts move at a glacial pace. We will make every attempt to get the court to take affirmative action ASAP, but don’t expect much for the next few months.” A NMFS representative declined to comment on the two legal proceedings, per its policy on pending litigation.   Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea fishermen press North Pacific Council on halibut bycatch

After years of deliberations, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is inching toward a decision on whether to tie halibut bycatch limits in the Bering Sea to abundance indices. The action, known formally as Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands halibut abundance-based management, or ABM, is intended to reduce bycatch of halibut in the Bering Sea by the Amendment 80 trawl fleet when the fish stocks are lower. The Amendment 80 fleet is a group of catcher-processor vessels that are allocated a portion of groundfish harvest. Each year, the fleet is bound to a hard limit on how many halibut they can take as bycatch, known as the prohibited species catch, or PSC limit. That limit is fixed, however, while halibut stocks and the allowable catch for the directed fleet vary. Over the last six years, the council has been considering whether to instead adjust the PSC limit to fluctuate with halibut abundance indexes based on two surveys, effectively pushing more of the halibut available for harvest to the directed fishery fleet. Depending on which of four alternatives the council chooses — from no action to varying changes —the effects could range from a 45% cut to a 15% increase, depending on abundance. Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a trade association representing members of the Amendment 80 fleet, said the draft environmental impact statement provided to the council points out that a shift to ABM would overall be detrimental economically. “There are a number of things the Groundfish Forum is concerned about — the primary one being that the draft EIS is very clear that there is going to be little to no benefits to the halibut stocks or to conservation in general and that the net (economic) benefit to the nation is expected to be negative,” he said. “That’s very up front and very clear.” The issue has been controversial from the beginning, in part because of the cost to the trawl fleet. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that cost to the Amendment 80 fleet would be between $68 million and $138 million, depending on fishing variables and the alternative implemented. By contrast, the draft EIS estimates that the economic benefit to the directed halibut fleet would be between $1.1 million and $2.2 million. There are about 835 crew positions in the Amendment 80 fleet, compared to about 400 in the directed fishery for halibut in the region. Because the loss is so large and the number of people relatively small, the reduced revenue would pencil out to about a $30,000 loss per crew position in the Amendment 80 fleet under one alternative. “There’s virtually zero upside to the directed fishery and a huge amount of downside to the Amendment 80 fishermen,” Woodley said. Though the review concludes that the net benefit of implementing abundance-based management would be negative economically, both the social and economic impacts are considered. Diana Stram, a senior scientist with the NPFMC who worked on the document, said the statement about the net benefits is largely an economic one. The council is bound to consider the 10 national standards under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which include standards like conservation, minimizing bycatch to the extent practical and minimizing costs. Stram said the council must balance its decision across those standards. “Certain actions are going to be more related to one of the national standards than others,” she said. “What we do as analysts in the document is we try to provide some narrative to help the decision-makers understand how this plays into their actions, but the onus is on the council if one alternative is balancing one standard higher than another.” None of the four alternatives have a significantly different impact on the spawning stock biomass for halibut in the Bering Sea, according to the draft EIS. That’s because the International Pacific Halibut Commission manages the halibut stocks as well and sets the catch limits based on its survey for sustainable harvest levels, Stram said. Whatever the council decides to do would only affect the amount of fish available for harvest, not the spawning stock. Some fishermen in the Bering Sea region are pushing for the council to enact the motion both out of economic and sustainability concerns. The directed halibut fleet in the Bering Sea is one of the economic mainstays for coastal communities in Western Alaska. Halibut is also a critically important subsistence resource in many of the communities of the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, particularly as other stocks like crab decline. St. Paul Island is one of those communities. The island, with a population of about 480 people, depends on subsistence foods and commercial fishing. Halibut is a staple there, and the community has a vested interest in the long-term sustainability of the stock, said Lauren Divine, the director of the ecosystem conservation office for the Aleut Community of St. Paul. None of the alternatives are enough to do what the community feels is necessary, but they want to see something happen, she said. A number of other halibut-dependent coastal communities have already stopped fishing for halibut, in part because of the decline connected with the static bycatch cap, Divine said. The community of St. Paul is home to a Community Development Quota group, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, and people on the island do depend on fishing jobs, but it’s not just about the economics for community, Divine said. “From an Indigenous community perspective, it’s not just about money,” she said. “It’s a way of life people don’t want to give up.” Heather McCarty, a fisheries analyst who works with the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, said the group is advocating for Alternative 4, but feels for a number of reasons that the draft EIS doesn’t provide enough information for the council to make a decision. For one, she said Alternative 4 is the only option that meets the council’s purpose and needs statement for the project. For another, the draft EIS focuses on the perspectives of the CDQ groups, which may not always be the same as the perspectives of the communities. The group supports the action because it would help spread out the burden of conservation to the trawl fleet, she said. Because the bycatch cap is static, in some years, the trawl fleet might be able to take nearly all the halibut available for harvest. “The directed fishermen bear the entire burden of conservation,” she said. Divine said the Aleut Community of St. Paul also finds Alternative 4 preferable. “Alternative 4 isn’t enough, but it is a good start as we move into abundance-based management away from static caps,” Divine said. “But I think this is going to be an ongoing (issue).” Stakeholders on both sides of the discussion agree that the EIS has some information holes in it that need to be addressed before the council uses it to take action, including on topics such as the effects of climate change on fish populations. The council is expected to take action on BSAI halibut abundance-based management at its upcoming meeting beginning Dec. 8. Both McCarty and Divine said the communities aren’t advocating for the trawlers to be completely closed, but for there to be a more equitable division. National Standard 9 of the MSA requires the council to reduce bycatch to the extent practicable. The Amendment 80 fleet has taken multiple steps to reduce halibut bycatch as more attention has turned to the issue. Since 2007, the fleet’s bycatch is down by 49%, the vessels have reduced their bottom contact by an estimate 90%, and are communicating about areas with higher halibut bycatch to avoid fishing there. They are also using excluders, deck sorting, avoiding night fishing and using small tows, among other efforts. In the past few years, the fleet has encountered high numbers of halibut on the grounds, such as in 2019, when record-breaking warm waters affected fisheries all over Alaska. Woodley said one of the fleet’s concerns is that the 2019 conditions will become a new normal, so the fleet wants more flexibility within bycatch regulations to adapt. “We are committed to continued halibut bycatch reduction, but with halibut bycatch already so low and with all current tools fully utilized, future efforts will likely result in only small incremental improvements.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Boom-bust commercial salmon season doubles 2020 value

This summer was significantly better for commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska than 2020, though that success was far from evenly spread. Commercial salmon fishermen hauled in salmon valued at $643.9 million this season, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s more than double the 2020 value of $295.2 million, but still a little behind the estimated 2019 value of $657.6 million. Overall, 2021 ranks fairly well in the historical averages for numbers of salmon harvested and poundage as well as in value, according to Fish and Game data. “When compared to the long-term time-series (1975-2020), the 2021 all-species commercial salmon harvest of 233.9 million fish and 858.5 million pounds is the third highest on record for both total fish harvested, and total pounds harvested,” the season summary states. “Adjusted for inflation (CPI, 2021 prices), the 2021 exvessel value estimate of $643.9 million is also the third highest exvessel value reported since 1975.” The vast majority of that value was in Bristol Bay, where fishermen took home an estimated $248.9 million in exvessel value—about 38% of the total value in the state. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of that value in Bristol Bay is from sockeye salmon. The Bay broke its run record again this year, though not its all-time harvest record. However, that value is still significantly below 2019, when it earned about $306.5 million. The fishermen only caught about a million fewer fish, but about 27 million fewer pounds than in 2019. The difference was in the size — the average fish was about 4.7 pounds this year, compared to 5.2 pounds in 2019. Biologists noted during the season that fish were smaller on average. Southeast Alaska came in second for value, with an estimated $132.2 million between its five species of salmon harvested. Southeast’s main commercial species are pink and chum — fishermen there landed about $48 million in pinks and about $39.6 million in chums, according to Fish and Game. Prince William Sound wasn’t far behind Southeast, with an estimated $121.4 million in exvessel value. Prince William Sound is much more heavily weighted toward pinks, though, with an estimated 66.3 million fish harvested and about $84 million in value for just that species. Prince William Sound also commands the highest price for sockeye in the state — about $2.57 per pound — but only brought in about 1.2 million sockeye this year, resulting in a value of about $16.7 million. The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands also did well this year, with an estimated value of $67.4 million, also mostly concentrated in sockeye. That’s more than quadruple what the region earned in 2020 and about $18 million more than in 2019. However, a number of other fisheries suffered this year. Cook Inlet lost a major chunk of its fishing season opportunity for sockeye in the upper Inlet fisheries due to low king salmon runs, resulting in a lower catch than usual, though it is higher than 2020′s catch. Chignik landed only 118,785 sockeye, with a value of $868,635. Fishermen in Chignik lost much of their season this year due to a weak run and resulting closures. The Yukon area had no fishery at all due to near-complete run failures. The region was only able to harvest pink and chum in 2020, but in 2019, it earned about $2.5 million from chinook, coho, pink and chum catches. Big job losses in salmon in 2020 The COVID-19 pandemic led to job losses in almost every sector of the economy, but seafood harvesting saw its largest single-year drop since 2000, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Throughout all fisheries, the state lost 1,078 jobs from its monthly average of seafood harvesting jobs. That may not be entirely due to the pandemic, though, according to a Nov. 1 Labor Department report. “While COVID-19 made last year’s employment trends anything but typical, it’s difficult to isolate the pandemic’s effects because harvesting employment can change dramatically from year to year anyway,” wrote Joshua Warren, a state economist. “The swings are subject to a range of factors, including when openings happen — if they happen — and environmental and biological factors.” Salmon is the largest employment sector, with more than half the harvesting jobs, and the losses last year hit salmon fisheries the hardest. August saw the largest drop in raw numbers, with 3,000 fewer salmon jobs than in 2019. Across the year, salmon saw an average monthly drop of 700 jobs from the year before. Some of that is due to COVID-19′s impact on restaurants — less demand for seafood products made for less profitable fisheries. Health and safety restrictions on operations also made bringing in staff more difficult. “All of these complications, especially early in the pandemic when little was known about the virus and what mitigation measures were effective, prompted some permit holders to not fish last year,” Warren wrote. “Those who did often reported using fewer crew members.” The Department of Labor’s numbers are for 2020. Employment numbers for 2021 show some early signs of improvement, Warren wrote, and operations reportedly ran more smoothly. However, long-term risks like stock declines and climate change may impact employment in Alaska salmon fisheries long term. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Proposed solar project on Kenai Peninsula would be Alaska’s largest

The Kenai Peninsula may soon get the state’s largest solar power farm to date, but it may depend on the local government’s willingness to provide a tax break. Renewable Independent Power Producers, an Anchorage-based company with several solar farms in Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, is working on a new project on the Kenai Peninsula. If it moves forward with the development, the farm — planned to be 160 acres, with about 60,000 panels and 20 megawatts of power production — would be the largest in Alaska. Jenn Miller, the CEO of Renewable IPP, told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in October that the company isn’t sharing details of the exact location for the project yet because the land lease details are still in the works. “It’s definitely significant,” she said. “This would be about 60,000 solar panels. Our record to date is a panel per minute to install, so we’ll see if we can beat that.” Across Alaska, cooperative utilities like Chugach Electric Association, Matanuska Electric Association and Homer Electric Association generate and provide electricity to members. Their boards are elected, and the members underwrite the infrastructure projects in their power bills. In the past, the cooperatives have built and owned all their generation sources. IPPs are essentially private companies that build and own the generation projects, but not the transmission lines. They then sell the electricity they generate to the cooperatives. Renewable IPP already owns three projects—one in Willow, one in Houston and one in Anchorage. Miller said the Willow project is the largest so far, but the Kenai Peninsula project will be significantly larger than that, providing enough energy to support about 4,500 homes, or about 6.5% of HEA’s energy demand. But one factor that may make or break the project is whether the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is willing to give the project a property tax break. Without a significant subsidy, the project won’t be competitive as a power producer, she said. “Property taxes would be about 10-15% of our annual revenue,” she said. “Ultimately what that does is it inhibits our ability to offer the lowest possible electricity cost to HEA members.” There’s a tax difference between public utilities and for-profit private energy generation companies. Utility cooperatives like HEA are incorporated as nonprofits, and therefore are not taxed on their properties. Private for-profit corporations — even if they are providing utility services — are. Electric utilities also operate as regulated monopolies under the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which prevents them from altering prices to consumers too much without oversight. They can only adjust power costs so much under RCA regulations. Renewable IPP is providing electricity like a utility, but because it doesn’t have any paying members, it can’t pass the cost along directly to amortize its infrastructure project. HEA can’t necessarily pass along its cost directly, either, because its prices are regulated by the RCA. Therefore, the solar project has to be competitive with natural gas prices in order to be economical. Miller said that’s why the property tax amounts on a project like the Kenai solar farm—with an estimated $30 million-$35 million in infrastructure costs—can make or break it. “If we get this exemption for this project, how does it benefit the borough residents?” she said. “If we come in four-tenths of a penny below the current cost of generation, we will equal what we would have paid in property taxes, and those dollars are going directly to the residents.” Renewable IPP does pay property taxes on the Willow project in the Mat-Su Borough. However, the difference there is the size of the project, Miller said — the Kenai project would be larger, and with intermittent energy like solar, the company has to cover the cost of guaranteeing power to HEA when the sun isn’t shining. Assembly members expressed some skepticism about having to provide a tax subsidy for a private industry. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said several times he didn’t support providing a tax cut to the solar project when another utility provider like Enstar Natural Gas pays taxes on its lines. Enstar, where Pierce was previously an employee before retiring, is a for-profit company and thus pays taxes. However, Enstar is also different in that it has a direct subscriber base of consumers. Miller said Renewable IPP usually does have a set escalator over the life of a lease that has to “meet or beat inflation.” The company has to look out a few decades at a price forecast for the utility’s cost of generation and show its price comes in under the estimate to receive approval from the utility and the RCA. She said the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity for the project would be competitive with HEA’s current costs of generation—between 7 and 9 cents per kilowatt hour—which is still more expensive than the Lower 48 average for solar power generation, but it is renewable and doesn’t depend on the cost of fossil fuels like natural gas or coal, which can fluctuate. She said the project may appeal to new businesses coming into the area as well. “We have heard for some new industries (what) they are looking at when they are considering siting a manufacturing plant here in Alaska … energy prices are one of the major deciding factors,” she said. “Some new businesses are very keen on renewable energy, and they want to be able to say, ‘We’re getting this much of our generation from renewable,’ but people have different feelings about that.’” The assembly took no action on a potential tax exemption for the project in October, but several members said they appreciated the information and were looking for more. Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl[email protected]

Board of Fish adds Chignik, Inlet sockeye issues to March agenda

Upper Cook Inlet setnetters may get some changes from the Alaska Board of Fisheries sooner rather than later. At its Oct. 20-21 worksession, the Board of Fisheries turned down seven agenda change requests from Upper Cook Inlet fishermen, five of them related to the restrictions on the set gillnet fishery and two more on general fishing provisions.  However, the board members accepted their own proposal that could allow for limited fishing in the setnet fishery as long as the late run of Kenai River kings meets the lower end of its goal and both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have also met their sockeye goals. This year presented exceptionally hard circumstances for the Kenai Peninsula setnetters of the upper sub-district, which stretches about 60 miles from Nikiski to Kasilof. Though sockeye salmon, the fishery’s primary target, were running thick, Upper were forced to pull gear out of the water by mid-July—usually the peak of the sockeye run—because of low king salmon returns. Because the two salmon runs are paired together in regulation, setnetters lost weeks of harvest, and some said that translated to tens of thousands of dollars for their operations. “The lost opportunity to harvest sockeye each year is an economic disaster, and cannot be overstated, for our families, coastal communities, support infrastructure, and processors,” longtime Upper Cook Inlet setnetters Brian and Lisa Gabriel wrote in testimony to the board. “At a time when the governor has stated that we need to squeeze every dollar that we can out of the economy, it seems contrary when $60 to $80 million of economic stimulus was left on the table because of forgone harvest.” The Gabriels were among dozens of setnetters who submitted similarly supportive comments of an agenda change request, or ACR,  which would have allowed for openings of the 600-foot fishery to harvest sockeye under certain circumstances even when Kenai River king runs are limited. Recent data from the fishery indicates that few kings are caught in the short nets, which are set out to 600 feet of mean high tide. Travis Every, who submitted the request, submitted a nearly identical request in July, which prompted an emergency meeting from the board in August. The board declined to accept the request then, which would have potentially reopened some setnetting at the tail end of the Kenai River sockeye salmon run.  “At (the emergency) meeting several board members stated that the emergency petition platform was not the correct venue to solve this matter,” Every wrote. “They encouraged setnetters to present our limited 600ft fishery through the ACR process.” Board member McKenzie Mitchell submitted the board’s 600-foot fishery proposal, which would allow limited fishing when escapement in the late run of Kenai kings reaches 13,500 fish and escapements have been met in the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye fisheries. Mitchell said she agreed that the public ACRs didn’t meet the standards for an emergency, but wanted to see something to be done to help the commercial fishermen. The board has three criteria for accepting ACRs: a conservation purpose, to correct an error in regulation, or to correct an effect on a fishery that was unforeseen. Every wrote that the board’s decision to implement increased king salmon escapement goals at the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting and to require a complete setnet fishery closure could not have foreseen two pieces of information. One is the data showing that the 600-foot fishery, when implemented across the entire east side setnet fishery, would catch so few king salmon proportionally.  The other is that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close the federal waters to salmon fishing in Cook Inlet, effective at the end of this year. Estimates range for how that will impact the drift fishery, but past records from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have estimated that about half of the drift fleet’s salmon harvest in Cook Inlet comes from the federal waters. Drifters have protested the move, and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association is currently working in the courts against the council’s decision. Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, who supported the fishermen’s argument that the present situation was unforeseen at the August meeting, said now that he agreed with the petitioners’ logic and that without action, the fishery will likely become cost-prohibitive to participate in. Board member Indy Walton, who is new to the board and lives on the Kenai Peninsula, said he agreed that the actions taken at the 2020 meeting led to these consequences. “If you’re changing the escapement goals and not seeing the potential domino effect… Now here we are today, looking at those dominoes that have fallen, knowing what has caused those,” he said. “From a conservation standpoint … I want to see these king stocks grow, but at the same time too, we run the risk of over-escapement.” Board member John Wood also said he would support accepting the ACR, especially in light of the federal waters closure. Without additional action, he said the risk of letting too many sockeye into the river is a real one. However, board members Israel Payton, John Jensen, and Marit Carlson-Van Dort all said the request didn’t meet the criteria for an unforeseen emergency. Payton said the board knew that the actions it took in 2020 would result in less sockeye opportunity in order to preserve kings, so that didn’t make it unforeseen. The board also accepted an ACR aimed at conserving Chignik sockeye salmon stocks. Chignik has seen four years of failed sockeye fisheries and the proposal seeks to limit Alaska Peninsula harvest of Chignik-bound stocks through season adjustments. The ACR specifically focuses on the early run. By approving the change requests the board members have not made any regulatory changes yet; rather, they agreed to investigate the issues at a March meeting. The board members went back and forth on whether the Chignik request qualified under the ACR guidelines as well, but ultimately came down to concern over the conservation of the stock. Board member John Jensen said he is concerned about the stock, but that Chignik’s regular meeting is coming up in 2023 and could be discussed then with the extra data. Other board members disagreed, saying that Chignik had already had to wait an extra year because of delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was one entity that said, ‘Do not postpone this because our situation is so dire,’” Wood said. “That entity was Chignik.” Fish and Game representatives said the department did not see the ACR as meeting the criteria, because early-run sockeye are returning to Chignik at a sustainable rate, but that the yield available for harvest is lessened. Public comments in favor of the Chignik ACR were divided—there were nearly double as many comments opposed as in support, with nearly all the comments in support from the community and those opposed from the commercial fisheries outside it.    Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected] 

Faced with crashing crab stocks, council looks to swiftly analyze closures and trawl impacts

As crab fishermen face a dire season in Western Alaska this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking for quick analysis and the fleet is looking for more extensive closures to protect some crab stocks. Survey data has shown an approximately 90% drop in snow crab stocks since the last survey, pushing acceptable catch limits down, while the long-term decline of Bristol Bay red king crab has led to a complete closure in the fishery for the first time since 1994. The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, the trade group that represents the majority of crab harvesters in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands rationalization program, has estimated a $200 million loss for the fishery. “It is simply catastrophic,” wrote ABSC executive director Jamie Goen in a Sept. 29 letter to the council. “We have boats that are not going to be able to make their payments, vessel repairs that will be delayed, and long-time skippers and crew that are losing their jobs, not to mention all the downstream effects to processors, communities, supply chains, and support businesses.” The problems with the crab fisheries in the region are complicated, and the reason for the apparent stock declines is not entirely clear. With an eye toward conservation, the ABSC requested that the council extend a closure area for red king crab in Bristol Bay and, among other long-term actions, to develop a council discussion paper based on how to minimize bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear in crab protection areas. The council voted to start the process for both. Alaska Department of Fish and Game deputy commissioner Rachel Baker, who serves on the council, introduced the first motion to extend the Bristol Bay closure area. The first action would ask the council staff for an analysis of the effects of extending the red king crab conservation area in Bristol Bay northward by half a degree. The ABSC says this would help protect crab stocks, which are increasingly concentrated in that northern area. Baker said she drafted the motion in response to requests from stakeholders, but wanted the council to have more information before taking definitive action. “While I realize there are some time constraints related to this analysis, and it’s not practicable for every single impact, I am requesting this analysis as outlined in the motion in the hopes to be able to understand if the proposed action is a likely solution to the emergency request from reduced mature female red king crab abundance as outlined in the ABSC request,” she said. Fish and Game, which cooperatively manages the crab fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is very concerned about the decline in the Bristol Bay red king crab stock, but the request for the analysis is meant to help strike a balance between the need for conservation and the impact on the groundfish fisheries in the area, Baker said. The other motion, introduced by council member Cora Campbell, would start the development process for a longer analysis document, which the council refers to as a discussion paper, about the impact of bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear on Bristol Bay red king crab stocks. It would also evaluate boundaries used for the crab surveys, assessments, bycatch determination and directed fishery area. That is almost directly in line with what the ABSC requested. Campbell referenced ecosystem changes in the region in her rationale for the request. She said she hopes the discussion paper will help establish a discussion basis for collaboration among multiple user groups while balancing groups’ interests. “I chose to focus solely on BBRKC because that stock and our opilio stock are clearly the most stressed, and opilio will be the focus of a rebuilding plan that will address most of these elements for that stock,” she said. Many seem to agree that changes in the ecosystem may be playing a role with crab stocks in the Bering Sea region. Goen noted in a separate, Sept. 29 letter to the council that the crabbers acknowledge that changing ocean conditions and predator/prey dynamics may be playing a role, in addition to direct and indirect fishing pressure. Survey data has been showing that the largest concentration of female red king crab in Bristol Bay has been moving north in recent years, so expanding that conservation area would help protect them from fishing pressure, she wrote. The drop in snow crab stocks gave the industry a shock this year — in other recent data, the snow crab stock seemed to be on the upswing. Katie Palof, the co-chair of the council’s Crab Plan Team, presented data to the council that indicated two possibilities for the fate of the missing snow crab: They’re either alive and the survey missed them, or they’re dead with an as-yet unknown cause. She said it’s not likely that the survey system was flawed, because it worked for Tanner crab. There are a number of other factors — including possibly increased predation by species like Pacific cod, a change in bottom temperatures, an increase in bitter crab infection among the crab stocks and possibly fishing pressure — that may indicate that the crab are dead. “Snow crab is our biggest species to be aware of this year, just because of the decline we saw on the survey,” she said. An undercurrent of urgency ran among commenters at the meetings. Particularly, the council received hundreds of comments urging them to take stronger action to limit bycatch limits in the trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea. That’s not entirely because of crab, though — this year also saw a precipitous decline in salmon runs in Western Alaska, which has led to subsistence food instability for many rural Alaska villages. Council member Bill Tweit said he noticed the division among commenters, particularly among the crab fishermen, in the comments, and hoped they could change their “divisive language” as the fisheries try to work together on what to do about the Bering Sea’s changing landscape. “I see some parallels between the crab situation and the salmon situation in the Bering Sea,” he said. “With red king crab and with Chinook, we’re seeing long downward trends; with snow crab and chum there’s really some sudden crashes. Obviously equally, crab harvesters are as dependent on the Bering Sea as anybody else, too. We’re all in the same boat together.” Baker’s motion for the analysis on the Bristol Bay red king crab conservation area closure provides for a fast timeline. She estimated it could be done by the council’s December meeting to help them make decisions on managing the fishery. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Trawler bycatch debate heats up after dismal 2021 returns

Fishermen are calling for state and federal fisheries managers to make changes to salmon bycatch limits for trawlers as chinook salmon numbers plummet across Alaska. Chinook salmon returns were dismal virtually everywhere in Alaska this year, from Southeast to the Bering Sea, with few exceptions. That follows a trend, as abundance has declined over roughly the last decade. Commercial fishermen have lost most of their opportunity to harvest kings, and sport fisheries have been restricted. Now subsistence fisheries are being reined in to help preserve the runs. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is debating changes in its meeting this month. Trawlers, which use weighted nets to drag either along the bottom or in midwater, are permitted a certain amount of bycatch as they fish for their target species, the largest of which is pollock. Bycatch is always a heated issue, but it is especially so now. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game informed the council in a letter dated Sept. 23 that three index species that it uses to track king salmon runs in the Bering Sea—the Unalakleet, Yukon, and Kuskokwim rivers—didn’t reach a threshold necessary to maintain the current bycatch allowances. That threshold is set at 250,000 fish between the three rivers; this year, there were 165,148. The Kuskokwim’s run came within its forecasted range, but the other two fell short. The shortfall in salmon this year hit fishing communities hard, particularly among subsistence fishermen. Amos T. Philemenoff, Sr., president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, wrote to the board that the salmon shortages in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region this year have impacted the island’s subsistence traditions. Donations of salmon from commercial harvesters to replace the lost food do not replace the traditions, he said. “Our communities have experienced physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual hardship due to the impacts of over-harvest and mismanagement that characterize these Alaska fisheries,” he wrote. “The burden of conservation has fallen on Indigenous (e.g., subsistence) users who are not part of the salmon population collapse.” Philemenoff said the island community has been bringing up concerns about the Bering Sea ecosystem for years and pointed to a combination of factors, including trawl over-exploitation of the fishery resources and climate change. Sea ice has become increasingly rare, not surrounding St. Paul Island since 2011 and 2012, and seabird die-offs have become increasingly common in the region. “The population declines of northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, Pribilof Islands blue king crab, and Pacific halibut, to name a few, have been devastating to the livelihoods, wellbeing, and future of our tribal and community members,” he said. “We have carried these concerns to this Council for years, decades.” He requested that the council drop salmon bycatch allowances to zero for the 2022 Bering Sea pollock fishery, that it seek federal disaster aid and research funding and that the council seek tribal consultation on salmon bycatch and management. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission asked for the same measures in its letter, noting that because of the lack of information on the reason for the salmon collapse, “sustainable fishery management requires that the Council limit salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery to ensure that NO salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in 2022.” Kawerak, Inc., the Ocean Conservancy, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association and the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association submitted the same requests. Several commenters are asking for similarly tough actions on the Bering Sea pollock fishery, but others are noting that significant cuts could also heavily impact Native coastal communities because they hold interest in that fishery through their CDQ groups. Fishermen with the Coastal Villages Region Fund, which represents the villages around the Kuskokwim River Delta and surrounding areas, caught about 102 million pounds of pollock in 2019, according to CVRF’s annual report from that year. Others are asking for changes to the bycatch management in the trawl fisheries. A letter from the Salmon Habitat Information Partnership program signed by 300 commercial fishermen asks the council to reconsider a decision it made regarding apportionment of Chinook salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska pollock fisheries. In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service published a rule moving 1,350 Chinook from the Gulf of Alaska pollock fishery to the non-rockfish program catcher vessel sector in the Gulf. Those 1,350 Chinook are a projected unused part of the prohibited species catch limit — essentially, some that the pollock fleet didn’t catch that they were allowed. The fishermen in the letter, from everywhere from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor, protested this move, saying the fish should be left in the Gulf rather than be allowed to be caught by another sector as bycatch. “Alaskans are making huge sacrifices to protect Chinook; the federal government via the NPFMC needs to do the same,” the letter states. “Chinook bycatch being rolled over to another trawl sector to kill and discard is unconscionable when many Alaskans are foregoing subsistence, sport and commercial harvest.” Salmon fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, from Southeast to Bristol bay, saw restrictions this year due to low king salmon runs. In Bristol Bay, early-season commercial fishing in the Nushagak District was restricted because of the slow king salmon return there. In Cook Inlet, setnetters were shut down completely in mid-July because of a poor king salmon run, along with a complete sportfishery closure for the Kenai River king salmon. In Southeast, sport anglers were restricted starting in June to protect the kings returning to the rivers there. In the letter, the fishermen argue that the rollover policy needs to be reversed while the council takes more long-term action to address king salmon bycatch in the trawl fisheries in the Gulf. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting this week via Zoom. The link to the meetings can be found on its website at npfmc.org. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Report highlights how Bristol Bay locals are losing access to commercial fisheries

Alaska’s limited-entry commercial fisheries system may be pulling access to fisheries away from the coastal communities where they take place. A series of research projects in the past decade has increasingly shown that limited-entry systems like Alaska’s commercial fishing permitting system or the federal-state individual fishing quota system are systematically pulling permits away from the coastal communities that traditionally depend on those industries. The most recent installment in that line of projects focuses specifically on Bristol Bay — today, the state’s most successful salmon fishery. The report, commissioned for The Nature Conservancy, found that in the 46 years since Alaska’s limited-entry system went into place, residents in Bristol Bay’s rural communities now own 50 percent fewer permits. The decline is similar among younger permit holders, contributing to the overall trend: commercial fishing permit holders in the state are increasingly older and from regions other than where they fish. Dr. Rachel Donkersloot, the lead researcher on the study, has been conducting research on the effects of limited-entry on rural communities since at least 2016, as well as on the increasing average age of commercial fishermen, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While limited-entry has served fisheries conservation well in the past five decades, she said she was focusing on the human impact of the system in this report. “It’s very clear we need to do better,” she said. “How can we improve, and how can we change it?” When limited-entry was established, the designers primarily focused on implementing a program that would keep more fishing power in the hands of Alaskans while creating a transferable permit system. Permits are freely transferable, though, which creates market value. Depending on the success of a particular fishery, permits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On average, a Bristol Bay driftnetting permit cost more than $180,000 in 2021, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That price creates a huge barrier for residents of rural communities, where cash income is limited. Gradually, those permits have made their way out of rural communities and increasingly into the hands of urban Alaskans and nonresidents. Limited-entry was passed in 1975; by 1983, 288 permits had already left the hands of Alaska Natives in Bristol Bay, a 21 percent decline, the report found. “This rural-to-urban outflow of fishing rights robs rural Alaska of its economic base, erodes rural economic opportunity, degrades rural infrastructure, and negatively impacts coastal community health, fishing heritage, and food security,” the report notes. The effect is not unique to Bristol Bay. In Southeast, for example, the villages of Angoon, Kake, Metlakatla and Hydaburg lost about 60 percent of their salmon fishing permits. Some of the smallest communities in Bristol Bay, including Pedro Bay, Egegik, and Pilot Point lost more than 75 percent of their permit holdings, according to the report. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery has been a blockbuster success, breaking its all-time record for returning sockeye this summer. “The impacts of limited entry are devastating, but it’s almost eclipsed by the success of this phenomenal fishery,” Donkersloot said. The reasons the permits are bleeding out of the Bay are complicated. Norm Van Vactor, president and CEO of the Dillinghman-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, said it’s a combination of different factors, including migration out of the watershed, attrition and some fishermen selling their permits rather than bequeathing them to their children. For about a dozen years, the BBEDC has run a loan program to help aspiring fishermen purchase permits in the region. But even that has only slowed the bleed, not stopped it, Van Vactor said. “At the end of the day, it almost cut the cost in half for a program participant to participate in it,” he said. “We’ve cut the loss numbers,” he said, but it’s not enough. The loss radiates economically. Not only do local permit holders make more money and hand down their expertise, they also train up local deckhands and younger commercial fishermen in the region. With them gone, Bristol Bay locals have a harder time getting onto vessels as deckhands. A generation of role models has disappeared, he said. What’s more, the locals notice the change, and the attitude tends to become negative. Outsiders bring a different approach to fishing than the locals and Native communities that have traditionally fished the Bay, he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re from Soldotna or San Francisco — you’re still an outsider,” he said. Fixes to the problem have been slow to come. Van Vactor said he worked with the Legislature in 2017 and 2018 on a bill to establish Regional Fisheries Trusts, which would have allowed a regional entity to hold permits that coastal communities could use, essentially tying a certain percentage of the salmon fishing permits in a region to that geographic area. After a series of amendments and versions, the bill finally languished in the House Fisheries Committee, which Van Vactor said is “disappointing.” Donkersloot also said the Legislature has a role to play in fixing this problem, trying to shift the permit system away from an open-market system where the cash-poor communities that depend on the fisheries cannot reasonably compete with more affluent permit holders from urban areas of Alaska or the Lower 48. In the report, the authors also highlight the potential for fisheries trusts as well as other suggested programs, like apprenticeship permits, small-scale access provisions and locally designated permits. “We’ve seen the impact of limited-entry on our communities, in villages,” Donkersloot said. “I think the goal here was to restart that conversation.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

ADFG: Bristol Bay sockeye runs set all-time record

It’s official: Bristol Bay’s 2021 commercial salmon season was the largest on record. In-season escapement and harvest estimates already set the stage for the record, but the end-season summary released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confirmed it. About 66.1 million sockeye salmon returned to the streams across the Bristol Bay watershed, breaking the previous record of 62.9 million, which was set in 2018. It’s only the third time in the bay’s history that the total inshore run has exceeded 60 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game. While the run was 60 percent above the recent 20-year average and about 32 percent above the pre-season forecast, harvest didn’t quite exceed forecast to those levels. In total, fishermen harvested 40.4 million sockeye, 11 percent above the preseason forecast of 36.4 million. It’s only the fifth-largest harvest on record, but it’s the third time in the last four years that the harvest has come in higher than 40 million fish. The $247.7 million overall ex-vessel value — which includes all salmon species, not just sockeye — was the fourth largest in the bay’s history. That amount doesn’t include post-season adjustments, either. During the season, managers noted that the average size of sockeye was somewhat smaller than historical averages. That’s in part because the fish that came back this year were younger. Fish and Game noted in the season summary that the dominant age class this year was three-year-old fish, or the 1.2 age class. They made up about 60 percent of the total run. The larger, older fish made up a much smaller component. “Average weight for sockeye salmon was roughly a pound less than their most recent 20-year average of 5.7 pounds,” the summary notes. Though some areas saw extremely high single days of returns — the Nushagak saw more than 1.8 million sockeye return in a single day in July — the overall run timing was earlier than in recent years as well. That helped with fishery operations. “Inshore run timing to Bristol Bay this season was not as late as in recent years and aligned more with historical average timing in most districts,” managers wrote in the summary. “This helped the fishery to operate at full capacity for the entire season.” Meanwhile, as Bristol Bay’s fishermen took home fat paychecks, other fisheries saw some of their worst seasons. Some of that was due to poor runs, and some was due to lack of harvester participation, lack of processor participation or both. Chignik, for example, saw a stronger than expected late-season sockeye run, which was refreshing for an area that has seen multiple complete sockeye run failures in the last five years. However, this year, there was no one available to harvest it, as the failure of the early-season sockeye run led fishermen to go elsewhere. The Chignik managers noted in a September report that there wasn’t much harvest opportunity in June and July because of the low run. “It is not appropriate to compare sockeye salmon harvest this year to recent averages due to the low participation and lack of harvest opportunity in June and much of July,” the managers wrote. The same is true for Cook Inlet; the commercial harvest is exceptionally low this year, with the drift fishery harvest coming in at about 849,150 sockeye, much less than the average in the last decade. Setnet harvest was low, too, in part because the setnet fishery experienced one of the earliest closures in its history in mid-July due to the failure of the Kenai River late-run king salmon harvest. There were plenty of sockeye — the end-season estimate of 2.4 million escapement into the Kenai is the highest since 1987 — but the lack of kings led to fishing restrictions. Managers noted that participation in the drift fishery was lower than average, too. In the Yukon River, the chum salmon run completely failed. Both the fall chum and the coho runs in the Yukon are the lowest on record, according to an Oct. 1 announcement from Fish and Game. For comparison, the normal historical run size is about 870,000 fish; as of Oct. 1, Fish and Game estimated the run at 102,000. Fish and Game estimates the coho run at 37,000 fish compared to its historical normal of 240,000. The chum run didn’t meet the threshold to allow any kind of fishing, and may not meet the Canadian treaty requirement. Subsistence fishing in the area relies on chum salmon, and managers plan to relax some of the requirements after Oct. 1 for the Lower Yukon, even though the escapement didn’t meet the requirement for any kind of fishing. “Preliminary data from assessment projects indicated that fall chum and coho salmon had the smallest fish lengths observed in their respective datasets,” the announcement said. “Subsistence fishing restrictions are being relaxed starting in the Lower Yukon Area on October 1 and moving upriver once the tail end of the salmon run has passed a subdistrict.” Kotzebue Sound’s season fell short as well, plagued by poor salmon returns and increasing restrictions in July and August. The final harvest estimate of 96,492 chum salmon was only about 64 percent of the 2020 harvest, and was the lowest since 2007. Like Bristol Bay, chums were also smaller, with an average weight of 7.4 pounds per salmon. There are only five years in the history of the Kotzebue Sound commercial fishery when the average weight was below 8 pounds, according to Fish and Game. The lack of fishing opportunity and thin harvests led the three buyers — Copper River Seafoods, Pacific Star Seafoods and Arctic Circle Wild Salmon — to say they would withdraw by mid-August, though the season didn’t end until Aug. 31. The season summary, released Sept. 23, said the department then opened some additional fishing time in the last week. Participation was low, though catch per unit of effort was similar to 2020. “Throughout most of the season, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) was similar to 2020 but, for most of the time this year, about 25% fewer permit holders were fishing,” the summary states. “During the last week of fishing, the CPUE was double the previous year with nearly the same amount of permit holders fishing.” In total, managers estimate the ex-vessel value for Kotzebue Sound at $332,064, which is less than half of the historical average value of the fishery, according to Fish and Game. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay king crab fishery closed for first time since ‘95

As crab numbers for most major stocks fall across the Bering Sea, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed for the first time in decades. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages the fishery cooperatively with the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced the closure on Sept. 3. The survey numbers in 2021 estimated that the red king crab stock in Bristol Bay is below the threshold required for a fishery, following the trend during the last decade. NMFS released its 2021 survey data on Sept. 3, showing the Bristol Bay district red king crab estimated mature male biomass at 12,559 metric tons, or about 27.7 million pounds. That’s higher than 2019, but less than half of the recent 20-year average, continuing the trend of a decline in the region. “Fifty percent of legal-sized males were new hardshell crab, a decline from the 62 percent of legal-sized males that were new hardshell in 2019,” the report says. The Bristol Bay red king crab stock, the largest in the state, has been declining for years. Surveys were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the last year of survey data in 2019, the stock declined and forced managers to cut the total allowable catch, or TAC, by 12 percent to 3.8 million pounds. The stock and harvests have been declining consistently since 2013. At the same time, red king crab has remained an incredibly valuable fishery. NMFS estimated that in 2020, fishermen landed 8.5 million pounds of king crab in the state, with an estimated $50.2 million value. That number includes all species of king crab, though, not just Bristol Bay red kings. Disentangling the economic impact of the red king crab fishery is somewhat difficult without further research, said Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. It will definitely negatively impact on the participating boats in the crab fleet, but impacts on secondary effects—such as indirect and induced jobs supported by the fishery—are harder to predict. “The specific economic impacts of this fishery closure would take more study,” he said. The 2020-21 TAC issued for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was the lowest on record since the 1995-96 closure, according to an economic report on the 2019 fishery presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Managers and surveyors had been saying the stock was approaching its threshold for closure, with reasons for the decline somewhat unclear. The survey from NMFS says that some possible reasons for movement in the stock in the past have been due to water temperature changes or fishery pressure, though the more recent movements seem to indicate water temperature being more likely. The economic decline in the fishery was already beginning to show in the employment figures as well. According to the economics report, hours worked by processing employees in the fishery declined about 15 percent and wages fell 5 percent between 2018 and 2019. That generally tracks with lower volumes produced. The harvest sector actually increased in 2019 by one vessel, to 56 active vessels, with about 370 active crew. Most crab stocks across the Eastern Bering Sea this year fell markedly, according to the survey data. That decline was most notable for snow crab, where mature male estimates fell by 55 percent and females by 70 percent from 2019. That was a surprise for some; TACs for snow crab increased in the Eastern Bering Sea in 2020. The results for immature snow crab are even worse: a 96 percent decline in immature females and a greater than 99 percent decline in males. “Total mature male biomass of commercial crab stocks in the eastern Bering Sea in 2021 was the lowest on record and 2021 biomass estimates continued a declining trend that began in 2015,” the survey states. Other stocks didn’t show “similar dramatic changes” since 2019, according to the survey, but the St. Matthew Island blue king crab continued to decline and Pribilof Island red and blue king crab estimates remained low. The only bright spot was Tanner crab, for which the mature female stock estimates increased. However, male mature biomass declined, especially for industry-preferred size crab, and immature Tanner crab biomass declined generally, except for those east of the 166-degree latitude line. Crab and shellfish abundance generally have been noted to be declining in recent years compared to high harvest records in the 1980s and ‘90s, with scientists still unsure about the exact cause. King crab is an iconic species for Alaska, selling for a premium and carrying a chunk of the state’s commercial fishing identity with it. Its decline parallels that of the decade-long downward slide of king salmon abundance in rivers across the state, pushing out most large-scale commercial fishing for kings. Wink noted that the Bristol Bay red king crab closures are difficult, but attest to the sustainability-focused management systems in the state. “It stings that these two iconic Alaska species (king crab and king salmon) are much less abundant than they used to be, but the strict reductions in harvests of those species is proof that Alaska walks the walk when it comes to sustainability,” he said. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is set to meet starting Oct. 6, with committee and advisory meetings beginning Sept. 30. All the meetings are virtual. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Peter Pan latest processor to announce COVID-19 vaccine mandate

After two seasons of closed campuses, rigorous COVID-19 testing and masks, Alaska’s seafood processors are increasingly turning to vaccine mandates for employees in a bid to keep their facilities open. The latest is Peter Pan Seafood Co., which announced its vaccine requirement for employees on Sept. 1. The requirement won’t go into effect for most employees until Oct. 1, with an extension for King Cove facility employees after that. Peter Pan operates facilities in Valdez, Dillingham, Port Moller and King Cove, but only the King Cove facility is open year-round. The requirement would not apply to the fishing fleet, though Peter Pan said in its announcement that it encouraged fishermen to be vaccinated and has provided the opportunity since April 2021. The company estimates that about 95 percent of its approximately 1,800 employees are already vaccinated, and that it will honor religious and medical exemptions. Rodger May, the president and chief growth officer for Peter Pan, said the decision was one of the most difficult he’d had to debate. “People are right on both sides of (the vaccine),” he said. “I’m hoping that the religious and medical exemptions fill all the gaps.” May said the major driving factor behind the decision is to continue to be responsible to employees and the communities in which Peter Pan operates. Even with the vaccine requirement in place, the company plans to continue its closed-campus and masking policies for workers. Peter Pan has been lucky and not experienced an outbreak at its facilities, he said, but if one happened, it could be devastating for the company and for the employees. “If for some reason you’re shut down for 20, 25 days, that could be 25 percent of their paycheck for the whole summer,” he said. “They didn’t sign up for that.” Alaska seafood processors rely heavily on workers from the Lower 48 and internationally to staff their plants, particularly the seasonal ones. That means many have to enter the state as the season ramps up, and the companies have had to bear the brunt of the cost of mitigating COVID-19 risk in that process, including testing workers frequently, paying for PPE, quaranting them in hotels and trying to social distance where possible in facilities that are normally densely crowded with workers. They received some federal relief funding meant to help offset that cost, but not all of it, and it posed a significant expense for many. To date, processing plants have experienced a number of outbreaks statewide, including several complete plant shutdowns. In July, Camtu’s Alaska Wild Seafoods in Cordova had to shutter briefly in response to an outbreak among workers, and in January 2021, two of the state’s largest processing plants — owned by Trident and UniSea — had to close at the beginning of the crab and pollock seasons. Between spring and fall 2020, 13 COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in Alaska seafood processing facilities and on vessels, with 539 cases that counted as spread among workers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until “high rates of vaccination” can be achieved in the seafood processing workforce, the recommendations are to keep quarantine groups to less than 10 people, test workers prior to transfer and perform serial testing to prevent outbreaks. Multiple processing companies have now announced that they will require vaccines for employees, including Trident Seafoods and OBI. American Seafoods states in its information for applicants that it requires new crew members to “undergo COVID-19 tests, pass a fit-for-duty exam, show proof of COVID-19 vaccine, exemption, or obtain vaccination through us, and receive this year’s flu shot.” Trident says its requirement is meant to help alleviate some of the difficulties about where and how it operates. “Our facilities and vessels require employees to work and live in close quarters, there are limitations on the medical services we can provide in remote locations, and it is not reasonably practical to evacuate from remote locations or shut down operations in the event of another outbreak,” the company’s website states. May said the majority of Peter Pan’s employees are already vaccinated, so the remaining few will be able to decide whether they want to receive the shot or seek employment elsewhere. In the case of those who would prefer not to obtain the shot or an exemption, the company will help place them at another processing facility. The timeframe for the company’s requirement will help facilitate that, he said. “We’re not talking a huge amount of people,” he said. “(The King Cove facility) is still very busy, and I didn’t want to put a gun to their head. The goal isn’t to terminate somebody and send them on their way.” He said Peter Pan has been blessed so far that it has not had a facility shutdown due to an outbreak, but if it fell in a high-volume time, there would “literally be no recovering.” In Port Moller and King Cove, Peter Pan is the only processors in the immediate vicinity, but even in Bristol Bay, a shutdown would impact the fleet because the other plants are already operating at capacity. Hiring is competitive, but May said he didn’t expect the requirement to create an issue for Peter Pan in finding employees. In its requirements, the company states that it defines “fully vaccinated” as having two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single doze of the Johnson &Johnson vaccine. The CDC has not provided guidance about recognition of foreign-developed vaccines, though President Joe Biden’s administration said in early August that it was working on guidance on verification of international vaccines for tourists. This year is Peter Pan’s first full calendar year operating after the reorganization in 2020. May said he thought the company is headed in the right direction, and that the vaccine decision is a leadership decision he hopes others can learn from. “There’s no right answer here,” he said. “We hope that people learn from it—we’re sure learning from it. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Court case is final hope for Inlet drifters

Editor’s note: This is the third and final story exploring the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. A late-season bumper run of sockeye salmon has pushed the Kenai River to its highest escapement in more than a decade. Unfortunately for the commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, they have had to watch many of them go by. Over the course of the season, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists upgraded the estimate for the run’s escapement multiple times, upping the in-river bag limits for the sportfishery and opening some additional time for the drift gillnet fleet. With the setnet fleet out of the water after July 20 because of poor king salmon returns to the Kenai, controlling sockeye escapements to the Kenai and Kasilof fell on the drift fleet and on the in-river dipnet and sportfisheries. Both rivers are ending their seasons significantly greater than the upper end of their escapement goals. ADFG is projecting a final escapement in the Kasilof of 519,000 sockeye compared to the top end of the escapement goal of 320,000; the sustainable escapement goal for the Kenai River has a top end of 1.3 million and ADFG is projecting an in-river run of about 2.4 million sockeye. Unless something changes, the drift fleet is likely to lose a major chunk of their fishing area at the end of this year, too. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently working its way through the regulations review process for a new fishery management plan amendment that will close the federal waters of Cook Inlet to salmon fishing. That section, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ, covers the section of Cook Inlet that’s three nautical miles and farther offshore; drifters typically harvest half or more of their salmon from there during the season. “For most of the fleet, the EEZ is the preferred area for fishing,” said Erik Huebsch, a drifter and vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “Without access to the EEZ, the drift fleet cannot harvest enough salmon to meet expenses and cannot afford to operate. “Without the drift fleet harvest, the seafood processing companies cannot afford to operate and will close their businesses. This is not speculation; this is exactly what has already been happening in the Cook Inlet salmon fishery.” NMFS opened public comment on the proposed regulations through July 5 this year. If the regulations are finalized and approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the EEZ could be closed by Dec. 31. The closure The fight over federal management of salmon in Cook Inlet goes back to 2012 and, some might argue, back to statehood itself. One of the reasons Alaskans voted to pursue statehood in 1959 was to gain more localized control over fisheries management, wresting control away from the out-of-state processing companies and federal government. Alaska has primary management control over fisheries in state freshwater and in marine waters out to three nautical miles offshore. After that, the federal government assumes primary management through the National Marine Fisheries Service. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council develops fishery management plans, or FMP, for the fisheries in Alaska and the West Coast for the federal government, and historically has delegated or shared some of that management with the state. Yukon River and Southeast salmon management, for example, are managed under federal authority of a treaty with Canada; Bering Sea crab fisheries are also jointly managed by the state and federal governments. In Cook Inlet, that historic but informal delegation of authority to the state included the management of salmon fisheries. In 2012, the council made that formal by excluding the federal waters of Cook Inlet from its FMP through an amendment that permanently delegated management to the state. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, sued and won at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, arguing that the federal government had to manage federal waters to comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The council again took up the debate in response to the court order, and in December 2020 voted to support an option for a new amendment that will include Cook Inlet into the Western area salmon FMP and will close the EEZ to commercial salmon fishing. NFMS approved the amendment on Aug. 12, according to a letter from Alaska Region administrator James Balsiger. The controversy UCIDA argues that the adoption of the new amendment to close the EEZ is illegal because of the State of Alaska’s actions. During the December 2020 meeting, Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told the council that the state would refused to accept delegation of authority with oversight from NMFS. In a November 2020 email obtained by UCIDA and submitted to the court, Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told Ben Stevens, former chief of staff to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, that UCIDA and others were “lobbying hard” to require annual federal review of state management of Cook Inlet fisheries to ensure compliance with federal laws. “John [Moller, former commercial fisheries advisor to Dunleavy] and I feel that opening our management to federal and outsider influence is the wrong choice, especially that it could potentially create a domino effect that would spread to other salmon fisheries across Alaska,” Vincent-Lang wrote. “It would shift the allocation fight into federal bodies which will lead to calls for sport and personal use representation on the Council and take time away for state issues of priority at the council.” UCIDA argues that this was in bad faith and undermined everything the stakeholders and NMFS had been trying to work on for several years. Among multiple briefs filed Aug. 20, Huebsch wrote in a declaration filed with the 9th Circuit Court on that the members of the Cook Inlet salmon FMP committee, which included stakeholders and NMFS representatives, worked on three options to integrate federal management into the Cook Inlet salmon fishery. “The Salmon Committee has significant interaction with NMFS and Council staff,” Huebsch wrote. “The Salmon Committee was never informed that the state would not accept a delegated program, or that Alternative 2 was infeasible. Had I been so informed, I would not have spent further time on Alternative 2, and instead would have worked on developing Alternative 3, which involves federal management of the fishery.” UCIDA argues that the state had been planning to refuse delegation of authority long before the meeting in December 2020 and did not disclose it publicly, tying the hands of the council on the preferred alternative of most of the stakeholders, which would have been delegated authority with federal oversight. The state argues that UCIDA’s requests — which involve federal oversight of salmon fisheries that reaches up into spawning beds and includes management of salmon escapement — are an overreach and undermine the state’s ability to manage its resources. Several other emails submitted by UCIDA to the court show correspondence between NOAA and Fish and Game about the state’s preference for Alternative 4 to close the EEZ and between Baker and council member Andy Mezirow when Mezirow asked for “rationale points” about why he supported the state’s position. Both are dated before the Dec. 7, 2020, council meeting. A Dec. 3, 2020, email from Baker to Vincent-Lang relayed the input from NOAA General Counsel that the “the main outstanding issue is the need to identify conservation benefits that outweigh costs of closing the EEZ to commercial fishing participants.” The consequences The closure is likely to result in the loss of most fishing opportunity for the drift fleet. Many say they won’t be able to afford the startup costs of fishing in the Inlet without the promise of the harvest in the EEZ, and the rest say that it may not be worth it because the processors may not be there to buy the fish even if they do. In the 2020 season, the average drifter in Cook Inlet made about $7,102, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That was the worst year in recent memory; a decade ago, in 2011, the average gross earnings were $65,753. “I fish the lower part of Cook Inlet, specifically the EEZ area set to be managed by closing these waters,” wrote Robert Wolfe, a drifter in Lower Cook Inlet. “If this action goes forward my business will have to shut down due to the distance I would have to travel to Where (???) [sic] the State of Alaska chooses where we will fish. At this point we in Cook Inlet have no idea how future fishery will be conducted next year.” There are currently two major processors with operations in Cook Inlet: Pacific Star Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods. Huebsch notes in his filing with the court that the loss of potentially 50 percent of the drift harvest is certain to affect their ability to make a profit in Cook Inlet for the season. The 2021 season highlights the effect of the management regime, he said, with the drifters restricted to the expanded corridors away from the federal waters and the setnetters closed. “This situation is untenable; processors are going bankrupt and commercial fishers face insolvency, all the while the state plugs the rivers with harvestable surplus salmon and NMFS and the Council do nothing,” he wrote. The City of Kenai and state Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, both submitted comments on NOAA’s proposed rulemaking change this summer opposing the adoption of the closure. UCIDA is asking for the court to block the amendment or any other that would close the EEZ, order NMFS to prepare an FMP that addresses “the entire Cook Inlet salmon fishery, including state waters,” appoint a special master to oversee the proceedings and to award the organization all its legal fees. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Last chance? Cook Inlet setnetters look to buyback as a way to save fishery

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a three-part series about the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery. Click here for the first part. The next article will be about the proposed closure of the federal waters to salmon fishing in Cook Inlet. In some ways, Cook Inlet’s East Side setnet fishery is the most desirable of commercial fisheries to get into: instead of having to fish remote sections of muddy beach, far from roads or towns, commercial fishermen can finish their sets for the day, jump up to the top of the bluff, and go to town for the night. The ones who live on the Kenai Peninsula can even go home, if they want to. In other ways, it’s one of the worst fisheries to be in. With unexpected closures and constant conflicts over salmon allocation, it’s not uncommon to find fishermen poring over the specific wording of management plans or frantically checking fish counts in the nearby Kenai River to see if they’ll be open. Many of them also listen in to the Board of Fisheries meetings, asking the members and department for changes or adjustments to management. That’s where Ken Coleman has found himself every three years since the 1980s: in the chairs at the Board of Fisheries meetings. A north Kalifornsky Beach, known as K-Beach, setnetter, Coleman said he’s watched the fishery ratchet back, with setnetters losing first the early season, then the late season, then gear, then time. “It just boggles your mind,” he said. Over time, it’s resulted in a fishery that can barely sustain itself. In 2020, the 468 permits that fished in the setnet fisheries around Cook Inlet earned a total of $3.1 million, or about $6,742 per permit, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Last year was the worst year in recent memory; in 2019, average gross earnings came back around $22,831 per permit, and at $10,886 in 2018. That includes all setnets in Cook Inlet, though, not just the East Side. With the seasons cut short and seemingly no management fix in sight, some of them are looking to a more long-term fix: asking the state to buy them out. Shortened seasons, shortened earnings Like the rest of Alaska, many of the fishermen are aging, and they’re working with their children and hired crew to man their sites each year. This year in particular was expensive; crew were harder to find, COVID-19 mitigations had to be put in place, gear to supply the sites was more expensive, and fuel prices had increased. Then, the entire fishery had an early closure on July 20. Despite plenty of sockeye jumping in the waters and entering the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, not enough large late-run king salmon are returning to the Kenai River. The setnet openings are tied to the in-river sportfishery restrictions on king salmon, so when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the king salmon sportfishery, setnets closed, too. Two setnetters petitioned the board to reopen them on a limited basis, but the board denied the petitions on the grounds that they did not qualify as emergencies. Coleman says north K-Beach, which stretches from the mouth of the Kenai River southward, had nine openers this year, none of which had a full complement of gear. Chris Every, who also fishes on north K-Beach, was one of the petitioners to the board. He said the board and Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang ignored data showing that the limited fishery the setnetters argued for caught very few kings and chose to keep them closed anyway. The late run of king salmon has missed its optimum escapement goal in the Kenai River three years running, and with the management structure for setnets pinned to that goal, many of the commercial fishermen fear this year is a harbinger of seasons to come. Every points to the declining number of processors in Cook Inlet. The once-competitive market of processors at the mouth of the Kenai has dwindled to two major players: Pacific Star Seafoods and Copper River Seafoods. Seattle-based E&E Seafoods, which owns Pacific Star, purchased Inlet Fish Producers from North Pacific Seafoods in 2020, adding that Kenai plant to its existing facilities there. “That’s the future of this fishery,” Every said. Coleman said he bought into the fishery when it was productive and has paid off his permits and lived off the earnings from the fishery for years. It’s hard to watch the young fishermen struggle by on the meager earnings from the fishery today, he said. “Paying my sites off were something I readily did because all my future was before and it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. Dean Osmar, who has been fishing setnet sites near Clam Gulch for nearly five decades, said he remembers opening in late May and fishing into October, when there was no defined end to the season. “Because of the early ending of the set net season the past couple seasons, we have lost (approximately) 50 percent of our catch,” he said. A buyback plan There are approximately 440 setnet permits registered to the East Side out of the 732 setnet permits Inlet-wide. Though the East Side is a distinct subdistrict, a Cook Inlet setnet permit can be fished anywhere in the area. That means that, given the chance, setnetters can move their operations to regions which are more productive within Cook Inlet. The Kenai and the Kasilof rivers are the most productive sockeye systems other than the Susitna River, and after they started spiking in production in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some setnetters have been looking at possibilities of a permit buyback since the early 2000s. The first effort through the Cook Inlet Revitalization Association fizzled out, but a more recent effort is working its way through the Legislature now under Senate Bill 29. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, does a few things to set up the opportunity for a buyback. First, it splits off the Upper Subdistrict—the official management name for the East Side setnet fishery—into an exclusive zone. Other Cook Inlet setnetters would not be eligible for the buyback. Second, it sets up a program that would allow qualifying permit holders to enter a lottery to have their permits bought back. That lottery would allow about half of the permits to be bought back at a fixed price of $260,000 per permit. To prevent speculation, permit holders have to have owned the permit since at least Jan. 1, 2018, and fished the last two years. The bill proposes using federal funding to finance the program. Coleman, who has been working closely with Micciche and advocating for this program for the past six years, said that number was derived from an average of several years of earnings for setnetters. The state is buying out businesses, which benefits the other participants in the fishery, he said, and gets the fishermen out “with a little monetary dignity.” On average, permit values have dropped since the fishery’s heyday in the early 1990s. Data from the CFEC shows that the value of Cook Inlet setnet permits peaked at about $100,000. They bottomed out in 2004 at about $7,000 and have inched back up to just less than $18,000 as of April 2021. The last thing the buyback program would do is close the tidewater lease associated with the purchased permit. The intent is to prevent other permit holders from just moving into the spot and defeating the purpose. The program has garnered support from some sportfishing groups, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, in the past. Setnets are not perfectly efficient; with gear reduced, more salmon will likely pass the commercial fishery and escape into the river. That benefits the sportfishery and personal use fisheries on the Kenai, which target both kings and sockeye. There are constitutional questions from past efforts, though. In 2008, the CFEC issued a memorandum outlining some potential legal ramifications about a salmon permit buyback program under the Limited Entry Act. Specifically, it notes that buybacks should be focused on the sustainability and economic health of a fishery, as well as the long-term well-being of its participants. However, it notes that “if the fishery were to become too exclusive under the Alaska Constitution, the State would have an obligation to put more permits back into the fishery.” SB 29 is currently in the Senate Finance Committee, and does not have a companion bill in the House. To go or to stay The buyback program is entirely elective. The fleet has to approve it, and entering the lottery is optional. The cabin on Sarah Frostad-Hudkins’ site on the Salamatof beach north of Kenai is a work of history. The cabin itself is built partially from wood reclaimed from the fish traps that lined the Cook Inlet coast in the 20th century; on the rafter hangs every commercial fishing permit the site has used for decades. Family pictures include one of her grandfather Ole Frostad who immigrated to Alaska and started fishing the site in the 1920s with a determined look on his face as he makes sourdough pancakes on a small stove. The same stove stands in the corner of the kitchen. Frostad-Hudkins said setnetting is a major part of her family’s lives; they have spent every summer for generations on the beach, hauling up salmon. They haven’t decided, but they don’t think they’ll go for the lottery themselves if it were approved. “We’ll probably just keep fishing,” she said. South of the Kenai, Every said he probably will. “Do you want to be bought out, or do you want to walk away one day and let it all rot on the beach?” he said. Not everyone in the fleet supports the program in its current form. Paul Shadura II, who fishes in the Kasilof region, said he was involved in the early 2000s effort and said he doesn’t care for this version of the buyback with the closed waters and the exclusivity of the Upper Subdistrict. “If that wasn’t in this bill particularly, I would be 100 percent supportive of it,” he said. Coleman said he’s heard a lot of support among the fleet for the buyback, though there are still a few who oppose it for various reasons. Without it, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of. future for the fleet. A gear reduction would allow the ones who stay to be more prosperous, supporting a commercial fishery in the future, he said; without it, they’ll have to struggle on the way they are and likely be starved out. “I want to see this survive into the future,” he said. “It has a rich history. It’s one of the oldest organized fisheries in the state. It’s highly emotional to me; I want to see my sons be able to fish it.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

‘Bleeding out’: Inlet setnetters feel pain of early closure as sockeye continue pouring in

Editor’s note: This story is the first of a three-part series about the Cook Inlet commercial fishery. Every few seconds, a bright salmon throws itself out of the water on the beaches of Cook Inlet and splashes back. Normally, that would be a sight to celebrate for the hundreds of commercial fishing sites up and down the west side of the Kenai Peninsula, but not this year. “I can’t even go to the bluff,” said Ted Crookston, who setnets on the Salamatof beach just north of the mouth of the Kenai River. Looking at the fish flopping in the water, unharvested, is too painful, he says. All the sockeye headed up the river past where setnets are usually harvesting them translates to thousands of dollars not going into a commercial fishery that has been bleeding out economically for more than a decade. He says he’s been fishing the beach for nearly six decades. This season is the earliest closure he remembers, with the last day of fishing on July 20. Since then, the East Side setnetters from Boulder Point north of Nikiski down to Ninilchik have been sitting on the beach, with many giving up and pulling their gear out for the season. The Salamatof fishermen say they had five openers in their whole season. It all hinges on king salmon, which aren’t coming back to the Kenai River in enough numbers. For the past three years, the late run of Kenai River king salmon has been too small to meet the lower end of its escapement goal, which means Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists place restrictions on both the in-river sportfishery and the East Side setnets, also known as the ESSN, which operate close to shore. This management structure is known as paired restrictions, which scale back setnetters’ time and gear as the sportfishery’s gear is restricted. The Board of Fisheries said the structure was justified because the setnet fishery harvests more kings than the drift fishery, tying it to the sportfishery if in-river fishermen are restricted. The problem is that many setnetters say they have tools available to harvest sockeye without taking kings, and ADFG isn’t using them. The 600-foot fishery On July 20, East Side setnetters fished their last day for the season, restricted to the 600-foot fishery from Boulder Point to Ninilchik. In the 12 hours that day, they harvested 36,668 sockeye and 72 kings. According to ADFG estimates, 11 of those kings were large late-run Kenai River kings. Chris Every, a north K-Beach setnetter, said the fishermen in his area have been pushing for the 600-foot nets as a tool to allow the fishery to remain open when the king salmon run is low for years. “We have data from the last four years with the 600-foot fishery,” he said. “It’s been fished between the rivers, and it continually shows the data that we’re trying to prove.” He submitted a petition to the Board of Fisheries asking for ADFG to be allowed to reopen the setnetters to just the 600-foot fishery this summer, letting them continue to fish in a restricted manner while the in-river king salmon fishery is closed. The board rejected his petition 4-2, saying that the situation doesn’t qualify as an unforeseen emergency. ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang wrote in his finding that this year is not an emergency because it has happened before and the board specifically made the regulation that provided for it. “Closure of the ESSN fishery has occurred in the past and is also not an unforeseen event,” he wrote. Several board members said they felt as though they hadn’t fully understood the implications of the regulations they made nor had the data on the small king harvest from the 600-foot fishery. The board ultimately voted down Every’s petition 4-2 and took no action on the other, a petition from the South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s association, an ad-hoc advocacy group. Paul Shadura II, who submitted the petition on behalf of SOKI, said he felt slighted that that board didn’t discuss the petition, which differed in specifics from Every’s request. He said the group is interested in putting in an agenda change request, or ACR, this fall to the board related to this issue, but that doesn’t help the situation with all those sockeye headed up the Kasilof River now, which the fishermen think will end up damaging the sustainability of the run long-term. “(It’s hard) to watch hundreds of thousands of potential dollars go into the system that do nothing for the future,” he said. “The annihilation of the East Side setnet fishery takes out another component that’s been here since at least the 1940s.” The data Every contends that the commissioner’s decision does not take the new data into account. ADFG opened the 600-foot fishery five times this season, though the four previous openings were in the Kasilof and North K-Beach areas. Each time, the harvest of large Kenai River late-run kings was less than 10 fish. With that data in hand, the advocates argue, the tradeoff of kings for sockeye is a fair one. The other user groups are able to be in the water, while the setnetters lose all their opportunity. “I never want to be sitting here when the dippers are dipping, the flossers are flossing, and the drifters are drifting,” Every said. “We are a group of people that is being bankrupted.” Some of the setnetters also argue that the king goal is unreachably high. Andy Hall, a Kasilof-area setnetter and the president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said watching the goal increase while watching the setnetters’ fishing time be cut to achieve an escalating goal is frustrating. “The paired restrictions are not equitable,” he said. “The concept of managing a sockeye fishery based on its absurdly low exploitation rate on a struggling king stock that has had the highest escapement goal in 25 years placed upon it is profoundly flawed. The only comparable paired restriction would be if all (personal use) and sport fisheries on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers were closed when a single targeted fishery was closed. I am not endorsing that by any means. It would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as the way the ESSN is managed.” During the Board of Fisheries meeting, Vincent-Lang said the data presented by the setnetters about the 600-foot fishery’s impact might be one instance, but may not accurately capture the exploitation rate on kings if it were prosecuted for more days and when more kings were in the water. During the meeting, no members of the Division of Commercial Fisheries were identified as being able to answer questions for board members; Forrest Bowers, assistant director of the division, said that was because he was traveling. Other staff were monitoring the meeting and able to answer questions, he said. Ben Mohr, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, agreed; the setnets may have a lower catch rate on kings when there are fewer kings moving through the water, but it may go up when there are more kings moving through the area. While the 600-foot fishery may have merit and he said he understands the pain the setnetters are going through, the middle of the season may not be the best time to make decisions about management strategies. “I think it’s really important that all sectors come together to talk about what we can do to come up with more selective harvest techniques,” he said. “I don’t think in the middle of the season is the time to do that. I don’t think in the middle of the season is the time to immediately call for experimentation.” The other side of the coin about the king goal is the coast-wide trend of king salmon declines. This year, several other large king salmon producing systems— the Yukon, the Nushagak, and the Copper rivers — all struggled to meet their king salmon escapements as well. Mohr noted that all three of those rivers have very little development along them, and they seem to be having the same trouble as the Kenai; that points to a problem in the kings’ ocean life component. Setting the king salmon goal higher can help provide differential levels of escapement in such a heavily used fishery, too, he said. If the goal is moved lower and lower, then the criticism might be that managers are just chasing a failing run down to make it look like they are meeting their goals. The closure costs the in-river guides as well; while some can rebook trips, king fishing trips are the most lucrative. The guides, and many in-river anglers, have gone to catch-and-release all the time for kings as a personal move to conserve the fish, too. “I don’t think anybody would want to be accused of catching the last king,” Mohr said. The future East Side setnetters, like most fishing user groups, aren’t a monolith. They vary in opinion from district to district, and sometimes even site to site. The Salamatof fishermen’s opinions about what should be done may come into conflict with the K-beach fishermen, and so on. One thing they all seem to agree on, though, is that this can’t go on without bleeding them dry. Crookston said the early closure has cost his site “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” “It is just horrible, what is going on,” he said. “There is tens of millions of dollars being squandered. To have opened the fishery would have been nothing. Everybody would have plenty of fish… there is no downside, only upside, and (Doug Vincent-Lang’s) true colors came out. We present you with a tool you say you want: harvest reds without harvesting kings.” Sarah Frostad-Hudkins’ family has been fishing the Salamatof Beach since the 1920s, when her grandfather Ole Frostad arrived there. In the past, the fishing has stretched from late May into September, or as her husband Jason Hudkins said, “until the nets froze.” Over the years, the season has been trimmed back into about six weeks. This season, their crew pulled their nets and stored their skiffs on the hill above the site just as July faded into August, after five openers total. “I feel like grieving is a good word (to describe the season),” she said. “We always grieve the end of the summer … this one is just earlier.” The next part in this series will cover the economic aspects of the closure of the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery, the East Side setnet fishery and the proposed buyback program for permits in the east side setnet fishery. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries denies setnetters’ emergency petitions

Kenai Peninsula setnetters are likely to remain closed for the rest of the season after the Board of Fisheries denied two emergency petitions seeking a partial reopening. In an emergency meeting held Aug. 2, the Board of Fisheries voted 4-2 to deny a petition seeking a limited reopening of the East Side setnet fishery in Upper Cook Inlet. The petitioner, Chris Every, asked the board to reopen the East Side setnets within 600 feet of mean high tide, known as the 600-foot fishery. “We believe by utilizing the 600-foot fishery we can reduce both the economic and biological impact while conserving chinook salmon, which is our ultimate goal with this 600-foot fishery,” he wrote in the petition. The setnetters had a foreshortened and significantly restricted season because of low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 6,420 large kings have passed the sonar on the Kenai River since July 1, significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 large kings. In response, the department placed progressively stronger restrictions on the sportfishery, going from no bait to catch-and-release, and finally to a complete closure. Because of the paired-restriction model the Board of Fisheries placed on the East Side setnetters, when the king salmon sportfishery is completely closed, they are too. Setnetters have not been in the water since July 20, and they have watched the peak weeks of the Kenai River sockeye run swim past. Aug. 2 saw the highest daily passage to date: 151,525 sockeye passed the sonar, according to ADFG. Every cited harvest data from ADFG showing that when the entire East Side was open to the 600-foot nets only on July 20, only 11 late-run large Kenai River king salmon were harvested. “We believe that the amount of kings that are impacted by the east set-net 600 foot fishery is equal to or less than the other user groups,” he wrote. “The total chinook harvest in each one of the 600-foot openers is very low.” Board of Fisheries member Gerad Godfrey, one of the members who called for the emergency meeting after hearing from stakeholders, said those numbers were what convinced him the situation is an emergency. “I may not have caught all this in public comment or deliberations,” he said. “That was obviously a very intense meeting with a lot of data.” Board policy makes it hard to qualify something as an emergency. It must be an unforeseen effect of regulations, an immediate threat to the stock or include new information that the board or department did not have on hand when making regulations. The setnetters argue that the harvest data on large kings qualifies as new information, quantifying their exact impact on the run. ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang issued a response to the petitions over the weekend, just before the board meeting took place, finding that the situation didn’t qualify as an emergency because it was not unforeseen nor new information. During the meeting, he said the board instructed the department to prioritize meeting the lower end of the late-run king salmon escapement goal over keeping the sockeye run within its escapement goal range. The data from the 600-foot fishery on July 20 does show a small number of large Kenai River kings harvested compared to the approximately 36,000 sockeye harvested on the same day in the East Side setnet fishery, according to ADFG data. Vincent-Lang said that one day’s data may not be demonstrative of the effect of a 600-foot fishery long-term. “That 11 (king salmon) harvest is indicative of that day of fishing, but it may not be indicative of what you can expect in the harvest in the 600-foot fishery that is prosecuted in the area depending upon when king salmon are passing and how big of a run you have going by that site,” he said. Godfrey called the king harvest “de minimis” and said he felt he didn’t think he foresaw the full effect of the board’s actions on the setnet fishery while other fisheries remained open. Member John Wood agreed, saying he would like to see a temporary fix to allow the fishermen to harvest some of the sockeye run, but let the action expire after 120 days and consider permanent fixes in the future. However, the other board members did not agree. Member John Jensen said he thought the situation was serious in allowing that many fish to go by, but agreed with Vincent-Lang’s finding. Member Israel Payton said he agreed as well and cautioned against risking king runs for the sake of harvesting sockeye. “We don’t want to miss a goal more than three, four years in a row, because then it goes into stock of concern, and then we really have to take drastic measures,” Payton said. “My philosophy hasn’t changed that yes, my comfort level is more toward making a goal than exceeding a goal.” The board voted 4-2 to deny the emergency petition. There was a second petition from Paul Shadura II, a south Kalifornsky Beach-area setnetter, asking for openings in the Kasilof section, in the 600-foot fishery, and in the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The board voted to take no action on the petition without any further specific discussion. Shadura, who submitted the petition on behalf of the ad-hoc group the South K-Beach Independent Fishermen’s Association, said he felt “slighted” that the board had not taken up the Kasilof petition. He said he felt the board didn’t discuss any of the serious underlying issues in the situation, including overescapement of sockeye into both impacting the future of the runs and the increased amount of large king salmon in the Kenai being unattainable. “There’s a lot of discussion among folks,” he said. “We really have our doubts about the credibility of the escapement number. The target range for the kings in the Kenai River may at this current level exceed what was historically available in the first place.” Shadura has been participating in the Board of Fisheries process for years and commented in the 2017 meeting, when the Kenai River king salmon goals were converted from all fish to large fish only, that it would result in more closures of the setnet fishery. He said this result is not surprising to him, though the results are devastating to the local economy. Most Kenai Peninsula setnetters live in Alaska. “And to the processing industry, who’s really, from COVID … trying to survive in this situation with a reduction in harvest capacity,” he said. “All those fish that go up to the river are potential processing dollars that help the local community in multiple ways, and the national economy. It’s very, very shortsighted and the management system is not doing anything for the repair of our COVID economy.” The setnetters can submit an agenda change request, or ACR, ahead of the board’s October work session to be included in the upcoming cycle of regular meetings, with the hope that board members will accept any proposal under ACR requirements. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Upper Cook Inlet cycle meeting, which is currently scheduled for 2024. The Upper Cook Inlet drift fleet is currently harvesting sockeye headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and so far has harvested about 668,269 sockeye. Across the area, commercial fishermen have harvested about 1.2 million salmon total. However, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association has also submitted an emergency petition to the Board of Fisheries, asking the board to suspend area restrictions during the first two weeks of August as well as the one percent rule. The petition states that the request is to help control escapement, which is increasingly coming in after Aug. 1, and the sockeye escapement goals in both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have been achieved. ADFG is currently reviewing the petition. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon fisheries turn to chums, pinks as sockeye runs wind down

While the sockeye fisheries in Southcentral and Western Alaska are tapering off after seasons of varying success, the chum fishery statewide is turning out to be pretty dismal. Statewide, chum harvest is actually ahead of 2020’s final catch, almost entirely because of landings in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula. However, the total volume is still down; as of July 17, the harvest of about 4.4 million fish was about half of the typical volume at that time, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Across Southeast, through July 17, chum harvest was 35 percent less than what it was in 2020. The Southeast troll fishery is seeing both fewer fish and smaller ones in the chum fishery. As of July 23, the trollers had landed 6,900 chums, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with an average weight of 6.4 pounds per fish, about 2.7 pounds less than the recent 5-year average and about 1.4 smaller than last year’s average weight. “Hatchery produced chum salmon runs throughout Southeast have been variable to date, but harvests have generally been below average as forecasted,” managers wrote in the weekly update July 23. The Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which tracks in-season returns of its summer chum, is showing that the actual return is tracking better than the lower end of its forecast. Up until statistical week 28, the run was tracking less than the forecast, but moved up by week 29 to between the lower and mid-ranges of the forecast. Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, however, is reporting poor returns at its sites. “Returns of summer chum to NSRAA remote release sites through stat week 29 continues to be poor and all indications to date are that we will be at or well below the low range of our preseason summer chum forecast,” the association wrote in its update on July 19. In Prince William Sound, 2.4 million chums have been harvested as of July 25. Harvest is better than last year, which ended at about 1.2 million chums. Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said chum salmon are marketed for both roe and fillets, with the U.S. being an important market for fillets while the roe is often consumed in Asia. Alaskans may think primarily of sockeye and kings in the salmon market, but chum and pink usually provide large amounts of product to serve the markets. “One way to think about it is just volume,” he said. “In certain markets you need a lot of volume, and pink and chum are where we have the volume. Pink and keta are both affordable ways to provide really high-quality protein to people who aren’t tracking salmon closely.” Salmon fisheries are beginning to turn toward pinks. Prince William Sound fishermen have so far landed 22.6 million of them, which are a mixture of hatchery stocks and wild stocks. It’s a surprise, given that these fish would have been born in 2019, when a drought and record-breaking temperatures seared Prince William Sound. “Wild stocks are returning stronger than anticipated given the uncertainty about spawning success from the 2019 parent year that was assumed to be negatively impacted by drought conditions,” managers wrote in the weekly update. The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation is forecasting about 6.6 million pinks to return to the Wally Noerenberg Hatchery this year. They are just starting to show up and are not yet in enough numbers to report, according to the hatchery organization. Cost recovery harvest began on July 26 at the Armin F. Koernig hatchery, which is expecting 5 million pinks to return, and planned to start on July 27 at the Cannery Creek hatchery, which is forecasting 6 million pinks to return. Pink season is still just getting going elsewhere. Southeast has harvested about 3 million total so far, while Kodiak has harvested about 1.2 million and the Alaska Peninsula has harvested about 4.5 million. The Alaska Peninsula is ahead of its recent-year averages, while Kodiak was reportedly slightly behind. Cook Inlet is starting to see some pink harvests mixed in among sockeye, but reds are still the main harvest. Last week saw the Upper Cook Inlet East Side setnetters closed entirely due to poor king salmon returns to the Kenai River, leaving the drift fleet and West Side setnetters as the only commercial harvesters in the upper Inlet. The Lower Cook Inlet fleet is primarily harvesting hatchery pink salmon bound for Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s two hatcheries on Kachemak Bay, and so far have landed about 139,000 pinks. Bristol Bay is mopping up the last of its sockeye harvests for the season, but all preseason estimates have shown that this season set a new record at just shy of 40 million sockeye harvested and a total estimated run of 64.2 million. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]


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